Lent began with temptation in the wilderness. The temptation was to resolve the tension of good and evil; the tension to gain control over the circumstances of suffering without entering into the lives of those who suffer. Jesus was tempted to bypass the work of being truly human and, instead, move directly into the position of Pharoah or Ceasar, that is, a human who thinks he is god as opposed to God who lives fully human. It is the temptation to be a false god or an idol that Jesus rejects at the beginning of Lent. This means that Jesus cannot move into an earthly enthronement, Jesus is now set on a course in which the love of neighbour and love of God are truly and fully integrated.
The Gospel of John offers a clear trajectory towards the crucifixion. Jesus celebrates the joy of marriage by changing water into wine showing a certain abundance of life in his ministry. Perhaps this should be read as Jesus’ own marriage commitment to live humanly, to be wed with humanity. From then on though the signs engage more with forms of suffering and distress that humanity experiences. This too is not an uncommon movement for marriages. These signs and Jesus’ movements begin to take on an increasing heaviness or significance when it comes to the human experiences of life. Jesus encounters the difficulty of change as he converses with Nicodemus. He experiences thirst and alienation with the Samaritan woman at the well. He walks alongside those crippled without access to support. He offers food to those willing to follow and listen to him. He confronts hypocritical judgment with the woman caught in adultery. He challenges the question of sin with the man born blind. And in all these things Jesus does not wave a magic wand he engages and responds to the relationships around him. There is a sense that overcoming sin and the world must first mean encountering and engaging it. Again, it was the temptation to side-step this in the wilderness that Jesus rejected.
What I noticed as I looked over Jesus’ responses to these situations is that for most of them Jesus seems to project an image of control and confidence; unwavering in his purpose. The reader gets the impression that Jesus knows ahead of time how he will respond to these scenarios so that his message will be communicated. In these encounters Jesus maintains a certain composure, at least according to the text. This is not the case in this morning’s reading. The reading begins with the same sort of composure. After hearing about Lazarus’ illness Jesus does not seem to be concerned. He knows like the healing of the blind man that what seems like a curse will turn out for God’s glory and so after having heard of the illness we are told that Jesus stays where he was for two more days. As Jesus talks with his disciples about Lazarus he continues with the posture of a teacher preparing them to learn from what they will encounter.
Even as Jesus approaches Bethany and hears of Lazarus’ death he speaks confidently to Martha’s concerns offering her comfort in the famous phrase, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Martha then returns to Mary and Mary goes out to meet Jesus. I want to take a moment and let this image take shape in your mind. The movement is Jesus on his way to Lazarus’ tomb. The movement is Mary on her way from the tomb. Something shifts in this encounter. Jesus sees Mary approaching. The text says she knelt at his feet but that is too passive and pious a translation. It would probably be better to say she collapsed when she reached him. And then she says, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In today’s language it would be. Where were you God . . . where were you? She goes on to drive the point home. We sent message to you days ago Jesus. . . . Don’t you care about us? Jesus saw Mary and the others gathering around weeping. Then it says that Jesus was ‘greatly disturbed and deeply moved.’ Again, we find here a translation that is a little too pious and little too safe. There is no quick and confident response now. No charging forward to accomplish his task. Something happens here; something utterly human; something that we may not be able to capture in words and understanding. ‘Deeply moved,’ what does that mean? We are deeply moved by a kind word or gesture; a card or a gift at the right moment. ‘Deeply moved,’ in our language, remains in the realm of the pleasant; meaningful, but pleasant. There is nothing pleasant going on here. The word used here is a word of the psalmist.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in anguish;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones shake with terror.
Then the earth reeled and rocked;
the foundations also of the mountains trembled
and quaked, because he was angry.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
as for the light of my eyes—it has left me.
It is the word of Job who says in chapter 19, ‘know now that God has overthrown me.’ Jesus is not moved by some sentimental sympathy he is confronted with the reality of his humanity and with the reality of death both in its effect on Mary and Martha and on the knowledge of his own fate. He nears the final crux of love and humanity. In response to this scene Jesus initially offers no grand statement of his vision and mission. He says simply, you can almost imagine quietly, ‘Where is he?’ They respond to Jesus, ‘Come and see.’ And Jesus wept.
I mentioned earlier that there is a movement going on here. Jesus is coming towards Lazarus and Mary is coming towards Jesus. And now, for a moment, they walk together towards the tomb. But once they reach the tomb a decisive shift occurs. It says that the tomb was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus approaches the mirror, the foreshadowing of his own death. Jesus faces the permanent and seemingly impenetrable rock. It is here that the shift occurs. Jesus has travelled towards the tomb and has reached the tomb and now he says, ‘Take away the stone.” The journey is not complete; mourning death is not the final movement. We can imagine that Mary, Martha and Lazarus have supported Jesus in his ministry; standing by him as others have be critical of him and rejected him. But Martha now begins, perhaps for the first time, to move away from the tomb. Jesus says, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha responds. Jesus, you don’t have to do this. We wish you could have been here but, Jesus, he’s dead. Jesus, can’t you smell that? It has already been four days.