From John 11
Mary was distraught … Lazarus had always been sickly, but he had recently taken a turn for the worse. Poor health had plagued him since he was a child, especially in his breathing. At times, he would have spells when he could barely breathe at all. This was one of those times — the worst she could remember.
The great Prophet, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, had befriended Mary, her sister Martha, and her brother Lazarus early in His public ministry, and He seemed to have a particular fondness for their company. All three of them were unspeakably delighted in this, and often longed for the comfort of His presence while He was away from them. They loved Jesus deeply and were convinced of His love for them, yet they found it strange that He had never offered to heal Lazarus.
Truly, it was disappointing that Lazarus was so weak; all three of them longed to be on the heels of Jesus in His travels, but Lazarus was too weak to work or travel, and for some reason Jesus did not seem pleased to relieve them of this. Yet, they remained faithful in Bethany, Martha and Mary doing what they could to make ends meet and minister to the needs of their brother.
An uneasy reluctance, which none of them understood, had quenched their liberty to openly ask the Master for healing, but from time to time they would hint about it with their Lord during His visits with them. They could sense His awareness of their longing, yet He never moved for them in this. While He freely offered healing to others all around, with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus … somehow it was different. Jesus would teach them lovingly and gently — profound things, deep and precious things — but never any talk of healing. It was an untouched subject between them.
In the panic of this sudden onset, however, all hesitance was lost in desperation. Jesus had recently left the Jerusalem area for the wilderness beyond Jordan, evading the Jews — if Mary could only get word to Him, she felt sure He would come quickly and heal her brother. Lazarus had never been this bad, and Martha agreed it was time to come out and ask the Master directly. Surely He would not refuse them.
Mary hired two young men who were friends of the family, and gave them directions to the general area where Jesus had said He would be going, along with instructions about what to say to Jesus when they found Him. She thought it best to remind Jesus of His love for Lazarus … perhaps it would encourage Him to make the journey back to Bethany; she knew He would be at risk to come back into the area, and that He would be making a special trip just for them. It was such an imposition to trouble Him so, but Lazarus was deathly ill; if Jesus did not come quickly, they were going to lose their brother — and he was still so young!
“When you find Him, tell Him, ‘He whom You love is sick.’ He’ll understand. Tell Him to hurry — and you two do the same! We don’t have much time!!”
The two messengers left Bethany immediately with little provision so that they could travel quickly, and determined not to rest unless it was absolutely necessary. Martha and Mary prayed earnestly for them to have a safe and timely journey. Once the men found Jesus, everything would be fine.
The young men traveled all afternoon and all that night, arriving in the area where Jesus was staying early the next morning. It was easy to locate Him because the morning crowds had already begun to build, and more and more people were heading His way. Following the flow of seekers was natural, and soon they were able to see exactly where the Messiah and His disciples were ministering.
Approaching the large commotion about Him, they pushed their way quickly toward the center and were able to catch the attention of one of the disciples, Andrew, and explain their mission. Andrew immediately understood the implications of their request and called several of the other disciples to listen as the two recounted it. Perceiving the dilemma that Jesus would face in hearing of the severity of His friend’s condition, the disciples encouraged the two men to approach the Master directly.
The two young men suddenly found themselves thrust into the presence of the Messiah Himself, as the disciples introduced them and explained their purpose. For a moment, speechless awe overcame them as they moved toward Him; they began to tremble.
The Master’s warm greeting quickly set them at ease though, drawing them in from their distant wonder, and they immediately delivered their simple message, just as Mary had instructed: “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.”
Instead of responding decisively to their announcement, Jesus looked at them gently and waited. In the unexpected silence, the two, still somewhat breathless from their journey, weren’t quite sure what to do.
One of them decided to offer a bit more of the context as a matter of persuasion. Lazarus was very ill. Jesus would have to move quickly if they were to make it back to Bethany in time. Mary and Martha were depending on Him. Surely He would understand and immediately begin to prepare for the journey as the sisters had believed.
Jesus let him finish until there was silence. He was still.
The crowd quieted, waiting for His response.
Would He not help them then?
At last, calmly and deliberately, He spoke. “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified by it.”
Their hearts leaped! What relief! Lazarus was going to get better! Nothing could be more clear. It wasn’t as bad as they had all thought. Deeply comforted, they were glad to have such wonderful news to return to the sisters.
Jesus would not have to come. Everything was going to turn out well. The disciples, also relieved, were glad to stay off the dangerous journey back into Judea for the time being; they did not relish the thought of returning to Jerusalem again so soon.
There was nothing further for the messengers to do but get the good news back to Mary and Martha quickly. Surely, though, the sisters themselves would soon begin to notice their brother’s hearty recovery: there was no great need for haste. The two messengers rested for a bit, refreshed themselves, and began their long journey back that afternoon. The Master’s promise was enough; they could return without Him.
It was late the following afternoon when the messengers arrived back in Bethany, eager to share the Master’s comforting words, and looking forward to the thankful celebration that would surely follow. Mary, between tending her brother and stoking a low fire, was anxiously scanning the horizon, anticipating the life-giving return.
Through the open window she thought she recognized them in the distance, just cresting the hill from the southeast and heading toward the village. “How strange!”, she thought. “Surely … it can’t be them. They’re alone, and walking calmly. Did they give up and quit? Dare them! At a time like this! How could they?” She went out quickly to confront them, while Martha stayed inside tending to Lazarus, who was just barely conscious and having severe trouble breathing.
Mary ran up to the men as they approached. “What’s the matter with you?!! Didn’t you find Him?”
The friends, with warm smiles, said, “Well, is he better?”
“BETTER???” screamed Mary, “What do you mean, ‘Better’!!? I told you to hurry and find Him! My brother is going to draw his last breath in a couple of hours and you ask me if he is BETTER? Where is Jesus? You came back without Him! Why didn’t you find Him like I told you to? How could you do this to me??!”
“Relax! Relax!” one of the young men offered gently. “Lazarus is going to be fine! Calm yourself down now, Sister. Jesus said that this sickness was not going to be unto death, but for the glory of God. Your brother’s going to be fine. Just believe. The Master knows.”
Mary, taken quite by surprise at this, stood limp, her mouth agape. “Better?” She turned to go back into the house. “Martha? … How’s he doing?”
“Oh Mary! He is so weak … he still won’t eat — the soup is cold again. I can’t even tell if he is breathing at all. He seems so cold … I have him wrapped the best I know how. I am beside myself! Is He here? Was it them?”
“Yes, it was … no He isn’t … I mean … they returned without Him … He isn’t … coming.”
“WHAT!?? Not coming? That’s impossible!”
By this time the two men had stepped into the house to encourage Martha. “The Master sends His healing! This sickness is not unto death, Lazarus will be fine. You’ve nothing to fear …”
Mary’s piercing cry interrupted — she watched Lazarus’ head slump down in final stillness as he sat bundled in his chair. Both sisters rushed to revive him. They rubbed his arms and legs, shaking him gently, calling to him … he was gone, limp and lifelessly cold in their arms as they held him and stroked his face.
Their wailing was chilling, even to the Jews. The neighbors knew at once what had happened and sent for a bier. Mary and Martha were beside themselves. Tired, dirty, and half-starved from worrying over Lazarus, they stumbled about him in an utter stupor — as the body of Lazarus discolored and stiffened. It was more than they could take.
For Lazarus to die was one thing, to die at such a young age was something else — but to have him die because Jesus had failed them was profoundly crushing. They could not believe what was happening. As the promise of life had flowed from the lips of those messengers, their brother’s life had slipped away. Jesus could have come! This was not supposed to happen! Jesus was different! He wasn’t a liar! He was no coward! Why had He done this to them? He was supposed to be their friend: everyone knew it. He knew Lazarus was sick… how could He?
He had deliberately failed them! How humiliating! All of the Jews would know about it. The public stigma of being an open friend of Jesus would now be doubly painful. It was not a popular thing about Jerusalem to be a friend of the Messiah, and now they were to be pitied — as well as mocked: He had openly turned on them! How the Jews were going to love this! It was plain that the Great Physician could have made it back because the messengers had returned comfortably. He had chosen not to! And on top of that He had lied to them! Their best and dearest Friend had betrayed them!
Their souls were groaning, their minds were shattering under the weight of it — particularly Mary’s … the deep one, the contemplative one. She thought He was different — He was different! How unlike Him to break His promises, but He had plainly done so. Somehow, He was always taking greater liberties with those who loved Him the most. It was so confusing! Now — her heart breaking in her sorrow — her mind was breaking as well. If He could not be trusted, if He was not faithful, if He was insincere … she was through. She could find no place for this in her soul. She was angry; she was confounded; she was ashamed. It was over. She could not go on. She would not survive this.
Martha wailed right along with Mary for the better part of an hour, and then sat down by herself to weep bitterly. She could not think; she was no longer angry, just confused and broken, hurting deeply. Jesus had not come. “Maybe He just wasn’t able to come for some reason, who knows?” It was better not to think of it. She watched helplessly as the neighbors came in to wrap up her brother. How could this be?
The mourners began to arrive and fill the air with their empty agony. How ugly their contrived sorrow! Martha had never felt the crass stiffness of unmoved hearts like this. How empty and sick, to be surrounded by professional mourners! What artificial heart can share the anger and sorrow of betrayal and loss? It seemed almost like a mockery from some of them … what quiet delight they must be having … offering contrived sympathy to some friends of their foe — who had been failed by their hero. Why couldn’t they just do this quietly? Just be done with it, without all this ado! No use to fight it … it would be over soon — then the quietness of the night would settle in.
As the day wore on, the messengers, who bore the lie from Jesus, bore the bier to the hillside grave. At least their crying was real. Martha could tell that they really had seen the Lord and had become convinced of His promise. They, too, were beside themselves, bewildered by the strange coinciding of the message of life and the death of their friend.
The stone in place, Lazarus had received a proper burial by mid-evening. As the last traces of the dusk dimmed into final darkness, the two sisters found themselves alone in an empty house — damp, dirty, lonely — a quiet crucible for Mary’s angry wailing.
In the painful stillness of that first night, Martha realized that in all of the commotion … the alabaster box had not been broken. Why? She could not really say. Lazarus’s death was so untimely, so rude, so deeply harmful, so utterly confounding — ointment in the air would only have mocked them anyway. The ointment was Mary’s idea originally, she was planning to break it to anoint the first one among them that died, but in her bewilderment she had neglected this last kindness to her brother.
Come to think of it … Martha sat up, uneasy at the thought … Mary had not really even moved since Lazarus had died. She had never made any effort to get the ointment for him. In fact, after her initial pacing around the room, she had sat down, head in her hands, wailing angrily and eerily, and had refused to follow the procession to the gravesite. Several men had carried her limply to and from the grave — she had not resisted nor cooperated. Afterwards, the men had returned her to her spot on the floor, to the very place where she had sat in awe at the words of her Lord so many times in the past, and had left her there to mourn. She was still there … moaning in the midst of her wailing, rocking back and forth as she sat in the middle of the floor.
Mary’s angry crying eventually spent itself over the next few days, until she sat quietly, still, emptied of all fiber and strength. She would not eat or sleep, and would only take tiny sips of water as Martha would offer it. Martha began to worry … the sting of her loss of Lazarus was being overshadowed by her fear for Mary. The Jews themselves were curious to watch and would not leave while Mary continued in this. More and more of them came with each new dawn. Jesus was nowhere to be found. How unlike Him? What would Mary do if He did come?
The morning after Lazarus’s death, still beyond Jordan, Jesus had risen from sleep and had looked toward Bethany. As the sun had broken into a bright new sky His heart had been mixed with the joy and pain of the Father’s will with His special friends. A sad smile had broken into His countenance as He had addressed the disciples, “Let’s go into Judea again.”
The disciples, dismayed at the thought of more plain danger, persuaded, “Master, lately the Jews tried to stone you, and You want to go back into Judea again?” Certainly, He had better plans, if He knew what was good for them all.
“Aren’t there twelve hours in the day?” Jesus responded thoughtfully. “If a man walks about in the day, He doesn’t stumble because he sees the daylight and knows what’s around him. But if a man walks around in the middle of the night, he surely will stumble, because he has no light.”
It was obvious … He knew what He was doing. He always did. He seemed to see what they could not … never unsettled, never alarmed, deliberate purpose always before Him. Still, it was an uneasy thought for them … tangling with the Jews again on such short notice. They looked blankly at Him, trying to make sense of His words.
“Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I am going that I might wake him out of his sleep.”
Another riddle … Jesus had some other purpose in going, not just to disturb the recuperative sleep of a dear friend. His disciples, fearing this other agenda, persuaded further, “Lord if he sleeps, that’s very good for him.” Jerusalem was the last place they had in mind for the next stop in their travels.
“Lazarus is dead …”
The disciples jerked in wide-eyed astonishment! “What? Dead? How could …? You plainly said …”.
His eyes intently searched through every one of them, “… and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent you might believe. Nevertheless, let us go unto him.”
In open shock, they looked around at each other, helplessly amazed. Had He lied about Lazarus? He was “glad“ that Lazarus was dead? How unpredictable and perplexing He could be at times!
It was useless to continue their persuading. He had never changed His mind about anything. There was nothing left to say, really. It was either dying with Him now, or dying without Him later. At last, it was Thomas who had broken the uneasy silence among them, as Jesus had started off toward Bethany alone. “Well, what ‘er we waitin‘ for? Let’s also go, that we may die with Him.” Thomas was right. There never was much time to think about stuff with Him. You either got with the program, or you were left behind.
They hurried to catch up with Him, but found Him not to be keeping His normal sturdy pace. There was a purposeful slowness in every step. There was a slow and deliberate cadence in His gait, almost like a death march. It was unnerving to the troubled disciples; His face — like a flint — pointed unflinchingly at Jerusalem.
Jesus thought of Mary as He walked along … as His friend sat before Him … quietly dying … her heart broken. Oh, how her pain rent His soul! Martha — she would be fine … it would be good to see her again, but Mary was getting to Him. He choked on emotion as He walked. What He would yet ask of her He had never done before with any human being. It tore at His breast to contemplate it. Yet, her pain was His. He would soon feel the forsaking of His Father. Soon, all the promises would be shattered. Nothing would be left but blind obedience — not even trust. Mary was chosen for the picture, but how deep this would be! He could already look into her eyes and see the joy that would be between them afterwards. But first … there would be unspeakable agony for them both.
The fourth day dawned on the sisters’ simple home, and Mary remained in the front room, seated in the center of the floor — which had muddied underneath her as she sat stiffly in her own soiled rags. Her matted, tangled hair sticking out from between her thin bony fingers as she clasped her head in her hands, her withered frame taught with anger and despair, she was totally unmoved by Martha’s pleas. She had had enough. Her Lord had broken her spirit with this.
“How unspeakably cruel of Him!!!” She mulled it over and over, again and again in her mind. He had failed her, broken His word, offered her an empty mockery in the time of her greatest need — when He had promised to be there for her. She had sat right here, at His feet, in this very spot, drinking in His words … words of life, words of truth, eternal words — feeling His warmth and tenderness with her. It seemed like she had gone to other realms with Him during those precious times. After that … for Him to do this to her? — it was more than she could bear. She would rather die than go on with Him after this. She would die, right here, unless He came and made it right. She would not let Him get away with it! The next time He came by the house to see her He would find her dead where He had last spoken to her. His words could mean nothing now. Some “Shepherd“ He was! What tasteless nonsense! No words could have meaning for her. Her God had forsaken her.
Martha knelt helplessly beside her sister and held her gently all morning long. There was nothing she could say, as she felt her own heart quietly sinking more deeply in despair. Perhaps she should give up as well. Going on … picking back up … it was not looking so pleasant.
The Jews, milling around in the house and whispering quietly among themselves, stared pitifully at the two frail women huddled together on the floor.
Towards mid-afternoon, as the sun peaked in dusty afternoon heat, there was a stirring outside that caught Martha’s attention. Someone was running up to the house, breathless, pushing his way through the mourners and into the room. To the two ragged little clumps of broken humanity, as he struggled to catch his breath, he announced triumphantly, “It is Him! He is here … coming towards Bethany! He is about fifteen minutes outside the city and there is quite a stir about Him.”
Mary was unmoved. He should have stayed beyond Jordan. She did not care to see Him.
Martha though, stood, unsteady, and leaned against the wall. She was so tired and weak … just to be near Jesus Christ of Nazareth again, to hear His voice, to feel His embrace. She did not understand a thing, but that He loved her … still. She would go to Him.
Leaning on the arm of the messenger, Martha made her way out the door and through the crowd, leaving Mary alone with the Jews. They watched her leaving, curious that she went alone, but did not follow. It was Mary they were interested in now … she was angry with her Master, and for good reason.
As Martha neared the clearing at the edge of town she saw her Lord in the distance. A deep mixture of pain, sorrow and confusion whelmed within her as she felt the inner release that always came when she was near Him. Now she could let go and weep freely. She ran to Him limply and embraced Him. He wrapped His strong arms about her and held her firmly in His bosom as she sobbed into His neck. How good to be in His arms again … like the arms of God! There was no better place to be!
He let her cry for a long while, holding her firmly and caressing her hair. Then He took her chin gently between His thumb and forefinger, turning her face into His, and looked warmly into her eyes.
Through her tears she sobbed in soft, tender bewilderment, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” Their eyes were locked together as they stared deeply into each other … the disciples listening quietly, peering curiously at the intimacy.
“But I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God, He’ll give it to You.” Martha was relieved to be able to speak freely through her choking emotion. Hinting around like she used to with Him, she was concerned for her sister now … Jesus didn’t seem to know. She had counted Lazarus a loss beyond repair, his body already rank with corruption. Her sister was losing it now. She simply could not bear to lose Mary this way — on the heels of her brother. Would He help her?
“Your brother shall rise again.”
His eyes were so full … His voice so resonant in her spirit as she calmed in His arms and stared into His eyes. What did He say? The words were still bouncing around unattached in her. “‘Your brother shall rise again …'” Brother??? Bewildered, eyes flickering under the weight of His words, she stammered helplessly, “… I know that … he shall rise again … in the resurrection … at the last day …” What else could He mean? Hope at this point was a wicked mockery — she knew it all too well. He should not be toying with her like this. He had such a way about Him! … so irresistible … so mysterious! Somehow she could still trust Him, His arms still about her, but He just couldn’t mean it. He always talked in riddles like this.
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”
She just looked into His eyes as He spoke. Nothing He said made any sense to her. What was He talking about? Oh! … How she loved Him! … her heart beating right next to His. It didn’t matter what He said.
“Do you believe this?”
Startled … quick! What did He say again? “Yes … uh … Lord … I … I believe. I do. I believe that You are the Christ … You are the very Son of God … which should come into the world.” He could get away with anything, asking high-minded questions and being late to the funeral! She pushed away from Him gently, and finally smiled. She must get Mary to come to Him. She needed His arms too.
With renewed energy she ran weakly back to the house. Entering quietly, slipping past several of the Jews crowding the doorway, she knelt tenderly next to her sister and whispered desperately into her ear, “Mary … Mary … Mary! … Please!! The Master is come, and He calls for you!”
Mary sat motionless, stunned, mentally screaming, “… How could He!!? He has no right!! … Perhaps it is time to confront Him about this. If He will not come to me, maybe I should go to Him!”
For the first time in four days she rocked up onto her hands and knees and began to stretch. It took several minutes for her to get to standing on her own as Martha held and steadied her, unaware of the sudden interest this sparked in the Jews. Once she had her strength, energized by a renewed and focused indignation, Mary stilted off quickly for the edge of town with Martha close behind her.
The Jews followed her in curious delight. “She hasn’t been able to deal with this here, she didn’t want to see Jesus … she must be going to the grave to weep there. That is the one place he won’t want to be. Let’s go with her.”
Quickly realizing that she was not heading for the cemetery, a large escort began forming behind her as more and more Jews picked up on the significance of the pending confrontation. “So she is going to confront Him! This is going to be rich!”
As she proceeded towards her Lord, the Jews began their wailing and moaning again, waxing eloquently sorrowful as they neared Him.
When Mary, embarrassingly surrounded by a sympathetic enemy, saw her Lord Jesus in the distance, the anger and the pain of deep betrayal began to choke her again in intense emotion. Eerie, angry crying began to gush forth from her bosom, as it had initially. Her eyes were defiantly locked onto His as she approached Him. As she stumbled into His presence He reached out to hold her, but she collapsed to her knees at His feet and cried out in her agony for all to hear, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died!!!” It was all she could do to keep from openly accusing Him in front of His enemies, but her spirit rang out loudly in Him, “My God! My God! WHY have You FORSAKEN me!”
She sat at His feet and stared up into His eyes … like she used to in the house … simply erupting in hurt and confusion and pain.
Without shielding His Spirit He received her glaring and drank from her wounds, looking vulnerably into her eyes … and permitting her to damage Him. Jesus opened Himself to feel her accusation keenly, and was so racked by her sense of betrayal that He began to groan audibly, and was visibly moved.
The disciples were startled at this development and began to watch Him closely. What was shaking Him and moving Him to such deep sorrow? Had He not said that He was glad that He had not been here for them? Glad that Lazarus had died? Had He not purposefully delayed His coming so that it would be like this? Had He made some vast mistake to wait for four days? And why all this now with Mary? The two sisters had said exactly the same words to Him … Martha was just as broken over the loss of her brother and Jesus had been entirely unmoved in her presence! What was happening?
Jesus — left with no answer to Mary as she glared into Him — did not try to explain Himself. He had known all along that this was coming. She was not expected to triumph now in her trust of Him. He had apparently broken all of the rules with her — well, almost all of them. Only He knew that the worst was yet — and soon — to come. In His groaning He simply asked her, “Where have you laid him?”
She looked deeply into Him, with a piercing indignation, as if to say, “Why bother!? What do You care where he is laid? The time for caring is past. Do not drag me through this any more! Just go away!!” She fell forward and caught His feet in her hands as if to hold him back, or push Him away. She did not want His sympathy, she did not even know if she wanted Him around at all any more.
The Jews, never hesitant when it came to open confrontation and conflict, answered for the two sisters, “Lord, come and see.” What a splendid turn! He was going to face His failure before all of them! Someone run and get the elders! They had been longing for something against Him … anything! But who would leave?… and miss this! It was incredible!
Mary released His feet, stood weakly, and looked painfully into His face — she could not believe He was going to do this to her. Jesus began to weep openly as He looked into her and saw her anger and her pain, her humiliation, her keen disappointment in Him. His heart was sickened at the shallow whining of the Jews who had come to pity her. How openly embarrassing this could have been for His daughters! Only He could see the whole of it. Little did she know that she was a shallow partaker in His own suffering.
As they walked along toward the grave Mary continued in her angry, bitter crying out, keeping her space from Him and deepening His wounds as they walked together, until His weeping and groaning grew well beyond hers in loudness and intensity.
This began to move the Jews to an even greater effort in their wailing, and some of them cried out, playing on the deepening sorrow of Jesus, “Behold! How He loved him!” It seemed to everyone present that Jesus was taking this as hard as anybody was, if not harder. But the contradiction was blatant, and openly touted among the spectators: “Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died?”
It was an open accusation from His enemies, a direct inference drawn from Mary’s behavior. It was obvious to all — the ugliness of this whole scene was to be laid entirely at the feet of Jesus Christ. These Jews would spare Him nothing; they would wring it for all they could.
His open wailing increased with the accusations, and with Mary’s wholehearted agreement in them.
As they neared the grave, the crushing of the Spirit and Soul of the Lord Jesus Christ was staggering. He was visibly shaken and moved, almost beyond control it seemed. Mary and Martha did not know what to make of this messianic mourning — it only added to their confusion and despair. How could He be mourning so when it was His own fault?
The disciples, bewildered and confounded at the unseemly behavior of their Lord, kept watching for signs of danger from the crowd as they followed in sheepish disarray.
Arriving at the grave, the crowd pushed in and sealed the two sisters and Jesus close together in front of the stone. The wailing and groaning continued for several minutes and then began to fade. Jesus, calming Himself with great effort, turned to face Mary and Martha before the crowd. It was time … for the unthinkable … they had no idea: “You … take away that stone.”
Mary and Martha both stared wildly at Him, in humiliated unbelief. The crowd began to hush; as others began to inquire. The command was echoed toward the back by those first few who had heard it in the front: “He told them to open the grave!”
Martha stepped up to Him in brave defense of their sanity. Perhaps … somehow … He didn’t realize what He was doing … He could not possibly expect this of them! The stench of the corpse of their brother, seeping through the grave seal, was clearly discernible in the air. Should she state the obvious and hope He would take a hint? “Lord, by this time he stinks! He’s already been dead for four days!”
She did not want to be openly rude in front of the crowd, which hung on every word now, but her eyes said to Him what her tongue would not, “What do You think You are doing??? We buried our brother so that we would not have to smell the stench of his death … we do not want to remember him this way! Don’t humiliate us and torture us like this! We have suffered enough!! My sister is almost insane from Your unfaithfulness to us. Please spare us this senseless agony! Don’t You love us???”
With tears streaming down His face, His voice shaking from the anguish in His Soul, Jesus continued to drink in their utter distrust of Him, their accusations of His unfaithfulness, of His lack of compassion in dealing with them. Trembling, He responded, “Haven’t I told you … that if you would believe, you would see the glory of God?”
So He was going to put them to the test before the entire crowd! He was going to expect this absurdity from them! It was either openly reject and disobey their Lord in front of His enemies, or allow Him to break every rule in the book with them. Why was He being so unreasonable about this? Wasn’t it enough that He had failed them already? That He was now making them go through this death all over again because it had not been convenient for Him to come earlier? Couldn’t He see the pain that they were in? Didn’t He understand what He was asking from them?? Didn’t He care for them at all? They looked helplessly at each other.
Martha dropped her head, as if to say, “Mary, I must leave this up to you. I cannot bear to disown Him in public like this, but I cannot agree to this without you.”
Mary looked into the eyes of her Lord one last time, at the edge of insanity, as if to say, “You should not be asking for permission to do this! If this is what You want, just go ahead and do it Yourself! You seem to do whatever You feel like anyway no matter what I ask of You! You are God! What business do You have asking for my permission!!? I cannot possibly accept this voluntarily! What You are doing to me right now is not right! It is beyond all sanity for You to publicly demand that I stand here beside You, open up my brother’s grave for You, and gag on the stench of his death. You have lied to me, You have been unfaithful to me, You have broken my heart, and You are breaking my mind. What do you expect of me!! I am just a piece of dirt that You have befriended! You own me; how can I say ‘No’ to You?? You have created me, You have won me to Yourself by Your beauty, and You have given Yourself for my soul … but how can I say ‘Yes’ to this??”
There was a long pause in her spirit as she studied Him. It was beyond her, but in her spirit she said, “I yield to You. If You want to break Your promises to me, it’s OK. You are worthy. Just don’t expect me to survive it. I am expendable … You are not. I will die, that You might live on without me. I will never turn on You openly no matter what You do to me. I will open his grave for You.” She dropped her gaze to the ground and nodded weakly in assent to His request.
Several of the Jews stepped forth to protest. It was unspeakable humiliation! Surely this Jesus fellow was finally going too far! Is this really what she wanted?
She stepped up to the stone and began to try to move it herself. Reluctantly, several men moved in beside her to force it from its seat, breaking the seal against the outside wall. It slowly and heavily dropped to the side — leaving the stark cave entrance wide open.
The stench from the grave of Lazarus was absolutely unbearable. It billowed forth mercilessly, overwhelming Mary and Martha and Jesus. There was no place to turn, nowhere to run: they were completely encased by the curious onlookers. The sisters fell to their knees and buried their faces in their arms while they began to heave and retch. The crowd gagged on the reeking stench, incredulous that Jesus could be doing this to these two poor sisters.
Several minutes passed this way. Death fume waves splashed heavily across the crowd until many were recoiling in nausea. Jesus continued to weep openly, breathing in the intolerable stench of His friend deeply and freely. He alone made no effort to protect Himself during this time, but let the corruption that flowed from that grave course through His lungs and penetrate deeply into His Being.
As Martha and Mary clung to each other in utter, broken humiliation, Jesus looked toward the sky and began to cry out for all to hear, “Father … I thank You that You have heard Me. And I knew that You always hear Me, but because of all of these people standing here I said it, that they may believe that You have sent Me.”
His voice rang out clearly and confidently above the dirge and chaos, startling those who were yet coherent. Deliriously blind in confusion and pain, Martha and Mary were helplessly drowning in death as they knelt on the ground before Him: they were beyond thought. The Jews, appalled that He would be praying aloud and touting His divinity at this point, much less giving thanks for this horrendous scene, burned in heating anger.
Then, Jesus paused in His prayer, stepped directly up into the mouth of the grave, and drew in a deep breath of damp corruption. His whole Being filled with the substance and pain of death, He cried out at the top of His lungs, “Lazarus! Come forth!”
The crowd was aghast at the insanity. Martha and Mary cringed at the blast and cried out in fear. Jesus dropped His head, stepped off to the side, and waited in silence. The air was still. The birds were quiet. The silence was only broken by the spasmodic sobbing of the two broken sisters.
Several, perhaps twenty seconds passed, as hundreds of eyes stared blankly into the darkness of the tomb, until, finally, there was a movement in the shadows against one wall of the cave.
Tightly wound in grave clothes, Lazarus obediently and carefully felt his way to the mouth of the grave and came out into the evening sunlight.
Everyone stood stunned — frozen absolutely speechless … the rank stench still filling the air. No one spoke a word, but stared frozen in thoughtless, paralyzed amazement. Martha and Mary did not notice at first, their faces still buried in each others’ clutching embrace, until Lazarus, still blinded with his grave clothes, called out gently and tenderly, “Mary? Martha? It’s me, Lazarus. Are you here?”
At the sound of Lazarus’s voice both sisters abruptly came to themselves, and gazed up at their brother standing in the entrance to the cave … the brilliant evening sunlight dancing across his death rags. Their fragile minds focused and studied the form. Could it possibly be?
Jesus said to several that stood by, loud enough for all to hear, “Loose him, and let him go.” They hesitated. The sisters cried out in unleashed joy and lunged at their brother to embrace him. Others began to cry out in praises to God, still others began to weep uncontrollably in profound emotion. Jesus stood by quietly as the commotion grew. Many pressed in to see Lazarus for themselves, and to touch him, as the linen windings were slowly taken off of his smooth, bright face.
As Mary clung to her brother, weeping in indescribable glory, her soul mending from the press and sifting of her trial, she winced in pain again as her eyes met the eyes of her damaged, lonely Savior. He was still reeling under the force of her abuse of Him.
Her hold on her brother loosened, and a new sorrow began to turn in her bosom. She dropped her hold on Lazarus completely as she gazed into the eyes of her Lord. No words were spoken between them as she maneuvered toward Him through the turbulence of the onlookers without breaking her gaze.
He reached out for her again as she approached Him. She stepped right up to His chest, embraced Him gently, and stared squarely into His face. Oh, how she loved Him! What fathomless divinity held her in His arms! What a Being this was!! What a Friend!
How could she have hurt her Lord so? He had known all along … He had planned their pain together, had known she would fail Him, while she grievously accused Him of failing her. He had made no effort to protect either of them from the depth and intensity of the pain that they would share together. She had openly and cruelly mauled Him while He had planned unspeakable joy for her. He had never forsaken her at all. It was she who had forsaken Him. Oh! How unworthy she was of Him! But now the oneness she felt with Him was indescribable! She would never be the same.
Momentarily, she completely forgot about Lazarus. As she looked into her LORD she read death all over Him. It was written in His eyes, it was etched into the fabric of His Soul. In her spirit she inquired of Him, “You? Dead? Forsaken? This is a picture?” He affirmed — she understood.
He had allowed her to enter into His suffering. His God was going to forsake Him. He was going to be left with nothing but blind obedience — not even trust. All of the promises of the Father would be laid on the line. No one would be there for Him. It was a mystery — how this could ever happen to the Son of God, but she perceived it to be true. None of the disciples had been given the liberty to see this, and it was only given to Mary after she had experienced it for herself. Yet, in her trial, she had not failed completely, come to think of it. His life in her had been obedient, even unto death.
They walked slowly back to the house, arm in arm, amidst the gala resurrection procession.
While the curious were pouring in to see Lazarus and inquire of him through the course of the evening, Mary waited beside her Lord, studying Him, musing on the miracle He had performed. She began to see the true meaning of His message concerning the purpose of Lazarus’s sickness – that they had all badly misunderstood, as He had apparently intended. She began to see why He had waited to come, why He had waited for her outside the village instead of coming directly to her, the affect of her delay in coming to Him, why He had asked her to take Him to the grave, instead of taking her there Himself … it was all beginning to make sense.
Truly, Jesus Christ was being unspeakably glorified in all of this. He could have done it all so very differently … but any variation she could try in her mind left something paltry in her. Nothing else would have glorified Him as much as this. It was all so exquisitely beautiful … but why had her Lord insisted on her opening the grave like that? He could just as easily have raised her brother from the dead without removing the stone. Lazarus could have called out from behind that rock without having it removed first. What was His purpose in that?
She was sure that it was not just to be hard on them; there was some design in it. She couldn’t see it at first, but over the next few days, as she watched the affect of the miracle on those that had witnessed it, she began to realize that the opening of the grave was central to the impact of the miracle.
Jesus had raised many people from the dead, but this one miracle so impacted the Jews that many of them left the synagogue and went away and believed on Jesus. This threatened and enraged the Pharisees so much that they took counsel together and agreed from that time forward to put Jesus to death — and not only Jesus, but Lazarus also. What was so profound about this particular miracle, that “the Son of God might be glorified by it” uniquely?
As she overheard the Jews’ constant chatter about it, it was the stench from the grave that had convinced them that this was a case beyond all reason. Other resurrections could be explained away, as if the person had not really died at all, but was just in some sort of stupor or faint. In fact, as in the case of one little girl, Jesus actually allowed those involved to think that was the case.
In this instance, however, there was absolutely no question. The putrefaction of Lazarus was proof of his utter death — it was clearly beyond explanation, and this central fact surfaced again and again in conversations about the miracle. As more and more people heard about it, more and more people believed, angering and dismaying the Pharisees.
That which had been used to publicly humiliate Jesus Christ in front of His enemies had become His greatest triumph and their sure defeat. Finally, she saw the necessity and the design of it all. How immaculately elegant it was! How cleverly and purposefully constructed in all of its detail! It really was a great privilege to have been chosen to go through it with Him. If only she had not hurt Him so!
In the days that followed, Mary could not be parted from her Lord. Lazarus was second to her Lord now. She would make it up to Him. She would be there for Him in His hour of trial.
As the days passed, and the stench of death lingered soberly in her heart, she began to think about that alabaster box of ointment she had been reserving for the first death in the family. It certainly would not be Lazarus — he was a new man. He had never been so robust and healthy in all his life. Jesus had healed him completely … and all three of them were following Jesus closely every day. As Jesus stopped back through Bethany one afternoon to have dinner in the home of Simon the leper, Mary ran home to get the box.
She came back and crept up behind her Lord as He sat eating. Would He mind? He was never fond of outlandish extravagance, but there was no other way for her to show her love for Him. Her heart was so full of this gift for her Lord that she felt almost compelled to it. She knew she would never find a worthier subject for this ointment. He was worthy of so much more! Oh … that she had more to spend on Him!!
Where should she put this fragrant treasure? on His head? on His feet? She stood quietly, thinking, unnoticed by the others in the commotion of the meal and attendants, and could not decide. The head was where the mighty were anointed, and royalty were sanctified. Yet His feet were where she had grabbed Him to thrust Him away. It was His feet that had carried Him against her will into that indescribably elegant grave scene. At once, she knew! She knew! It was His head that she would anoint. It was His feet that she would anoint.
The box was broken behind Him and the ointment began to ooze forth into her palm. Nothing would be spared for another: she would spend all on Her Lord. So little was done for Him while He was always thinking of others. She would not have Him remembered with a stench, even if it was her brother’s. Her only prayer was that He would understand, and not rebuke her for her passionate expression of love for Him. She poured a large portion onto His head and watched it roll gingerly past his ears and neck, onto His clothing.
She expected Him to startle at first, but He received it as if He had already known and was waiting for it. Of course! How foolish to be sneaking up on Him like this when He always knows everything! She smiled, as the rich fragrance enveloped them and drew them together.
She knelt behind him, and began to caress His feet with the rest of the ointment. She relaxed from her apprehension and began to enjoy her work, as He received it from her without a word — she knew He was receiving it from her the way she intended it: she was loving Him. She crouched to let her hair fall against His feet and began to spread the ointment with her locks.
The disciples, beginning to notice and observe, became appalled as they perceived what she was doing. Their indignation grew intense, the more she worked, and the more He received from her in silence. They were confounded at the silence of their Lord; He had never permitted such waste as this! They twitched and eyed each other desperately, yet no one moved a hand or tongue against her. The house filled with the heavy fragrance until they could almost feel it. They watched helplessly as Jesus received it calmly, waiting for Him to stop her. How could He be permitting this? Didn’t He know how expensive this stuff was? It was not often that they tried to take control of a situation, but all of them were moved to deep indignation at the wastefulness of this woman. Finally, Judas broke the silence for all of them, “Master, why was this waste of the ointment made?”
Mary winced embarrassingly, hoping that Jesus would not turn on her as she had against Him. Judas continued indignantly, “A good year’s wages are wrapped up in that box … and there are poor and needy people all around us! This is contrary to our ministry, Lord! It is indecent …”
Jesus raised Himself up a bit and scanned all of them as they nodded in agreement. Mary froze breathlessly.
“Let her alone.”
A smile broke across her face as she went back to work, stroking His feet with her fingers and caressing his toes with her hair.
“Against the day of my burying she has kept this.”
How did He know? Why was she asking! … it was almost as if she dwelt in Him and He in her. Their hearts were one. He would soon be buried. Ointment would not refresh Him in the tomb: she would be one with Him in the fragrance of death until then.
“The poor are always going to be with you, but Me you do not have always.”
The disciples began to murmur distantly among themselves, missing His point entirely, continuing to focus on the mysterious allowance, the monetary waste, disquieted at His siding with a woman against their plain humanitarian concerns. One of them, Judas, had finally had enough …
Mary focused in her work. Warm to her Savior’s purpose, in the joy of loving Him, dead to the world’s disdain, she ministered to Him quietly. What a privilege to care for Him! to spend for Him! to serve Him! She relished the closeness of heart she was finding with Him. What ways He had! What words! She worshipped Him with her hands and her ointment. She worshipped Him with all her heart.
But then … Mary’s heart sank again as she worked, pondering what He had just said. Would He be taken from her so soon? Was her loss of Lazarus just a shadow of her loss of her God? To be apparently forsaken by Him was one thing, but to have Him ripped away from her, now that she had come to love Him so deeply, could be much, much worse. What was He up to? Why didn’t anyone else seem to care?
She put it out of her mind immediately and refused to contemplate it. If she had learned anything at all from this whole experience, it was to trust Him simply and to love Him intensely no matter what. There was no place for whining and arguing, nagging, worrying, pacing, no place for angry crying. She was to yield to Him and love Him passionately.
But how would she manage if He was dead?!! It was wildly beyond her comprehension.
She watched Him and studied Him desperately, day after day, drinking in His every word, savoring every second as if it were their last together, studying everything about Him: His voice, His gait, His unspeakable confidence, His profound wisdom, His humility and selflessness.
For three years she had known Him and had let her brother’s health steal her joy in being close to Him! Only now, at the end, had she discovered how precious He really was! He was the walking image of the fullness of the Godhead, God incarnate. No one else really seemed to feel this way about Him, or that He would be taken from them so soon. The disciples kept talking of ruling, of a kingdom, of power and authority, of danger. This was all silence in Mary now as she stayed at His side; nothing else mattered but Him.
The ointment she lavished on Him held its fragrance for days, continually reminding both of them that His whole purpose in coming was to die. Wordless revelation coursed from His Spirit into hers as she began to see the unfolding mystery during that last week: the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing of the temple, His teaching in the open courts.
She watched Him pick out His betrayer at the paschal meal, His last evening with them! Peter would deny knowing Him before the sunrise! This was the night! He had said it would be by crucifixion … she followed in dreadful imminence as they made their way to the garden of Gethsemane just outside the city wall. Judas was missing …
Then the confounding came. She heard Him confess that His soul was exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death! Would He not make it to the cross? She watched Him go off alone to pray, and remembered the four days that she had sat alone in the house. She watched Him shaking, blood squishing out from His forehead as He prayed in agony, crushed in some infernal press, and remembered her agony at the open grave of her brother.
Her God was admittedly confused now! “If it be possible … Not my will but thine …” Was He even willing to die right here in the garden to please His Father? Had He always been like this about the Father’s will for Him? Was it here that He was being made to abandon the promises of the Father? Was it here that He could no longer trust? Was it here that His obedience became blind?
Finally!! Two angels came and strengthened Him, answering His bewildered prayers! What divinity exuded from Him in all of this!! What brokenness!! What obedience!! He had even been willing to not go to the cross!! He had laid it ALL down at His Father’s feet and waited. He was perfect now, fully ready, and it wouldn’t be long! It was time!
… A dreadful kiss! Her sense of betrayal had been His ! Had she only known!
She watched Him taken roughly from the garden, tried and brutalized by the same generation that had tormented her with their artificial mourning. He had been right — hers was only a shallow taste. A bony whip, a thorny crown, public humiliation, a parade of death.
Finally, she watched Him … writhing, scourged, heaving in breathless agony, dying shamefully naked and grotesquely mutilated upon that cross. She heard Him violently pierce the air with what she had screamed at Him in her spirit, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me!” Oh! How His pain tore at her breast!
She could not comfort Him. As He hung suspended between the blackened churning clouds above … and the blood soaked earth thrashing and straining beneath … she could not comfort herself. Her God was dying, broken, humiliated and forsaken … rejected by earth and heaven!! WHY???
She had never felt such bewildering pain, not even at her brother’s grave. Even so, without shielding herself, she drank in the horror with Him.
One last rasping breath, His Spirit finally yielding … she watched Him die. There was absolutely no escaping it. His body hung limp and lifeless, gore dripping, a spear-pierced side. She stroked His bloody feet one last time … one last groping for the light of His eye … He was gone.
Down from the lumber they took Him, into a cave they put Him; closed it up with a rock — and took Him away from her, just like they had done with her brother. What victorious violence filled the air as death ripped her God away from her!
Roman soldiers mocked and threatened as she lingered near His tomb; she would be near Him at any cost. She would not sit in broken silence … as she had with Lazarus. Driven by a maddening love for a dead God, for days she would not relent, only — on the third day — to find … the stone rolled away!
Oh! How she shuddered at the humiliation! How vicious that desecration had been to her! This was indescribably worse!
But no stench now? Light billowing forth from the grave instead … the soldiers gone … where could they have taken Him?!
Strange men … glistening in the tomb? … announcing …? whatever … they did not care to help.
Rotten or not, she would find Him. No one would humiliate her Lord in death if she could help it — no Pharisee, no soldier, no one! She herself would bear His rotting frame to the empty grave of her brother — where He had conquered death and her heart — and bury Him there in peace. She would sit with Him and guard Him until she died. She had no more reason to live, no more taste for it, other than to be near whatever was left of her beloved Lord.
Blind with sorrow, desperate just to be near whatever remained of Him … she would ask the cemetery gardener standing by over there. Maybe he would know what they had done with Him. If not … she would go to the trash heap herself — the infernal dump outside the city where they put the carcasses of the wretched — and begin to hunt for Him. Doubtless, that is where those wicked Pharisees would have put their hated Messiah!
As she eyed the gardener through her tears, she thought of the stench of death again — how it had brutalized her at her brother’s grave! She had endured it in an agony for Him then. Now, blind in desperate fervor, stench meant nothing to her … if it would keep her away from her Love.
Last week, stench had been broken by resurrection, the comfort calling of life from the grave. But there could be no comfort now, no majestic voice defying corruption, no tender voice gently calling out her name in victory over death and the grave now — as Lazarus had done, to wake her from her misery.
She was alone now — her God was gone forever. All her hope had died in Him. Her heart was buried with His. Yet she would love Him, she would long for Him, she would devote herself to Him — even in death.
Blinded in determined despair, she made her broken way toward Him.
Her Lord eyed her passionately as she approached, delighting Himself in the intensity of her abandon for Him. Soon Mary Magdalene would discover Him as well. How He savored the taste of that one word He would say to arrest and wake each of them! What vast richness in a simple sound! How elegantly delightful the Father’s plans could be!
He drank deeply of the morning freshness … of the sweet resurrection dawn … drawing Mary to Himself in the twilight … as the very first human being to view the risen Christ.
After engaging her for one last instant in her sorrow, and drawing out an intoxicating gush of her blinded passion, He called to her gently … and set her free.