Sunday, November 4, 2018

the death of Lazarus and the faith of Martha

Almighty, eternal, and merciful God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: we pray that as we meditate upon your Word you will lead us deeper into all truth that we may better know and do your will and grow in holiness day by day. Amen.

I wonder if any of you have ever noticed how much space St John the Evangelist devotes to the story of Lazarus? The entirety of chapter 11 of his Gospel is spent outlining not only the raising of this man from the dead by Jesus, but also the build-up to the miracle and the aftermath of the event. That's fifty-seven verses of Sacred Scripture; by contrast, the other evangelists spend only a handful of verses in the accounts they give us of our Lord raising someone from dead. This means that St John believes that these details are of immense importance; and more, that the Holy Spirit, as he inspired the Beloved Disciple in his writing, knew that the details were essential for us to know for the sake of our own salvation. So it would well behove us to ponder these details very deeply indeed.

Therefore this morning I would like to consider not so much the raising from the dead itself, but the behaviour of his sister Martha in the lead-up to that miracle. For I think that her reaction to the death of her brother has much to teach us as to how we should act ourselves when faced with adversity and when God, seemingly, has not answered our prayers – or, to put it more accurately, has answered them, but not in the way that we would have preferred.

Now, we have met Martha before in the Gospels. St Luke introduces us to her in Chapter 10 of his account. Let us remind ourselves of what he says:

'Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

It is not very flattering to Martha, is it? Her busy-ness is rejected in favour of her sister Mary's more contemplative approach, echoing in a way God's rejection in Genesis of the sacrifice of Cain in favour of that of Abel. But Martha is no Cain, as we discover as St John tells us more about the woman who at another time worried about many things. And look at the reaction of this practical woman when Jesus arrives on this occasion.

She asked Jesus to come and heal Lazarus, but he did not come.
Indeed, perhaps she even knew his decision not to come was deliberate, for most likely those she had sent to ask him to come had returned to her and said that Jesus had refused to come with them. And so her brother is dead and four days in the grave when the Lord arrives. Indeed, not only did he not come in time, the one that can cure at a distance as we learn from the healing of the Centurion’s Slave, did not do so for a man whom the evangelist said he loved.

But despite all this, Martha has not lost faith in Christ. Consider how absolute her faith is from her words to Jesus only moments after he arrives ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ And remember that she says this after her brother has died but before he raises him to life again or even says that he will; she says this while her brother lies in the grave where he will, for all she knows, remain until the end of days.

This is what it is to have faith; and why it is that I believe that Martha's faith is an example to us all. For real faith accepts God's will whatever it happens to be. Real faith accepts that sometimes God's answer to our prayers is 'no' or 'not yet' or even that his answer may be something completely different to what we expected or hoped for. Real faith accepts that God in his wisdom knows best, even if we cannot understand what that better thing is, and that lack of understanding causes us pain in the here and now.

This is what happened in the case of Martha's prayers. God said no to the healing of her brother; but only for the sake of the greater miracle that would help bring many to faith in Christ. But Martha did not know that when Jesus arrived. And yet her faith in Jesus, her faith in God was not shaken. I pray that we will all learn from Martha's example. Was it not for that reason that the evangelist told us of her faith, that we could learn from it? And was this not also the reason that the Holy Spirit inspired him to write of it? So that we might learn, like Martha not to doubt or lose hope, even when things seem at their worst.

To the Almighty and Eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to him be all honour and glory, now and unto the ages of ages: Amen.

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