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Dearly Departed
by Gordon Lang
Not For Sale
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“Is he awake yet?” Martha asked, breathlessly as she closed the door behind her. It was late in the morning, well past the time when people normally arose.

“I haven’t seen him this morning”, her sister replied, “but then, he didn’t sleep well again last night. We’ll leave him for a while before we rouse him – did you bring the eggs?” In reply, Martha retrieved the eggs from the pocket of her apron. “I wonder where Jesus is?” her voice reflected the apprehension that she felt in her spirit, “We sent word to him last week – I thought that He would be here by now.”

Martha didn’t have an answer, the same question had occurred to her many times over the past few days. She had prayed, she had fasted, she had given alms to the poor in the marketplace, still, there was no improvement in Lazarus’ condition. His body was growing weaker every day, and none of the physicians’ potions seemed to help. If only the Master would come, she knew that He could heal her brother. He slept much of the time now, some days rising only to consume a few pieces of fruit, or perhaps a small bowl of hot broth. If Jesus didn’t arrive soon … her mind refused to complete the thought. They depended on Lazarus for their financial support, what would happen to them if he were to …? Again the thought went unfinished.

“Lazarus!” Mary’s scream broke into Martha’s thoughts. “Martha! Come!” Martha could tell by the desperation in her sister’s voice that this was the moment they had been dreading for weeks. Standing in the doorway, now, an uncontrollable wailing erupted from within her. Mary knelt beside the cot at the opposite side of the room, and continued to call his name. “Lazarus! Lazarus!” but there was no response from the still form that lay on the cot. In a daze, Martha crossed the room, and placed a trembling hand on her sister’s shoulder. The world started to spin about her, and she collapsed in grief beside her sister, and the still form of her departed brother. She placed her hand on Mary’s heaving shoulder, in an effort to console her, but her own grief now overwhelmed her, as they both turned from the body and clung to each other. Emotion ran freely for what seemed like eternity, each one trying desperately to come to grips with the reality of the moment for the sake of the other.

“I wonder how Lazarus is doing,” James mused as the company paused by the roadside, for a much-needed moment of rest. They had heard of his condition a few days ago, but, surprisingly, the Master had seemed unconcerned. There had been much work to do in the city, but surely, if the situation was as bad as they had been led to believe, Jesus would have left some time ago to minister to His friend.

“By now, Lazarus is asleep,” Jesus stated, solemnly meeting each gaze in turn. “What I must do now is to go and awaken him from his sleep.”

“But Lord,” Peter protested, “if he is asleep that is good. He has been struggling so hard with this disease that his body probably needs all the rest that he can get. Surely, we must go to visit him, but if he is asleep, why would you awaken him?”

“You don’t understand, do you Peter?” Jesus asked in a voice filled with sympathy. “Let me put it plainly – Lazarus is dead!” The finality of the statement caused each of them to flinch with a sense of emotional loss.

“Then why didn’t we go sooner?” Andrew queried in puzzlement. “We could have been there two days ago. Mary and Martha must be beside themselves in grief by now. We should have been there to comfort them!” Such apparent insensitivity shocked each member of the group.

“For your sakes I am glad that I wasn’t there,” Jesus stated matter-of-factly, “this way each of you will have a chance to increase your faith. You will need much stronger faith in order to handle the events that will take place in the not-too-distant future.”

“Like they say,” Thomas interjected, “ ‘Die one, die all’!”

“Martha,” Mathais whispered in her ear, “the Master is coming. It won’t be long now, they say he is just at the outskirts of the town”.

“The Master is coming…” the words slowly sank into her consciousness. “I must go to Him! I must see Him!” her spirit cried. Mary was still lost in her grief. Martha would not disturb her, but the proximity of the Master beckoned her. She got up quickly, as silently as she could, and hurried out the door. She had just closed the gate, when she heard His soft voice greeting her.

“Lord!” she turned, in answer to His salutation. Suddenly, the emotion of the past four days came tumbling from her mouth. “Lord, where were You! If only You had been here, my brother would not have died!” As soon as the words escaped from her mouth, she was ashamed of the veiled accusation. “But even now, Lord,” she hastened to add, “I believe that God will give You whatever you ask for!” Did she dare to hope that all was not yet lost? Could He yet bring joy out of the depths of her sorrow?

“Martha,” the Teacher consoled, “your brother shall rise again.” He looked at her with that question in his eyes – “Do you understand what I am saying, Martha?”

“Yes Lord,” she conceded, “I also believe that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Silently she added “but that is little comfort for me today!”

“Martha,” the Master continued gently, “I want you to understand that I am the Resurrection, and the Life. If anyone truly believes in me, even if he dies – he will live again. In fact, anyone who lives, and truly believes in Me will never die. Do you believe that, Martha?”

Martha hesitated, trying to understand what she had just heard. Just last week, Lazarus had lived, and even in his weakened condition, he had believed that the Master could heal him, if He were there. Still he had died! But what was that? “Even if he dies – he will live again?” What was he saying to her? “Lord, I believe that You are the Christ – even the Son of God.” Not trusting herself to say any more, she turned to go into the house to call Mary.

Mary still sat beside the cot, that vacant look of grief etched on her face. Not wanting to disturb her, but knowing that she would wish to be informed, Martha touched her shoulder lightly. Mary raised a tear-stained face to recognize her sister’s interruption.

“He’s here!” Martha whispered.

Instinctively, Mary knew the meaning behind the words. Leaving the room full of mourners, she silently rose and followed Martha.

“Lord!” all the pent-up emotions of the past few days came spilling from her lips. “Where were You? Why didn’t you come sooner? If only you had been here, I know that You could have healed him! Our brother wouldn’t have died!” The finality of that word hit her once again, and she collapsed in His arms, sobbing once more in her grief. Joining her in a moment of shared emotion, He wrapped His arms around her and wept uncontrollably.

Mary didn’t know how long she had stood, weeping in His embrace. She only knew that it felt good to be released of the burden of grief. His open expression of grief assured her that He shared in her pain – that He really did care!

“Where is he?” Jesus whispered tenderly, not wanting to end the moment of healing that was occurring in Mary’s emotions. She turned to lead Him from the house to the gravesite. They arrived at the unmarked site, a roughly-hewn tomb in the hillside, covered by a rugged stone. Mary fell silent, thinking that Jesus wanted a quiet moment of remembrance for His friend. “Take away the stone,” she heard Him direct some of the mourners who had followed them.

What was He possibly thinking? Did He simply need to see the body to effect some amount of closure? Even so, it defied logic!

“Master!” Martha interjected, “Lazarus has been dead four days now! The stench will be overbearing! Did You really mean that we should uncover him?”

“Remember what I said about seeing the glory of God, if you would only believe?” He asked her gently. Turning to the others, he repeated His directive – “Take away the stone.”

Each one looked at the other, hesitating to obey the command, knowing that, in so doing, they would be ‘unclean’. Finally, seeing that Jesus was serious, the two closest to the stone knelt, one on each side, and lifted it from the opening to the cave. Grimacing at the offensive odor, they set the stone to the side of the opening, and retreated a few yards back, watching curiously to see what the next action would be.

“Father,” Jesus said, His face turned upward, “thank-you for hearing Me. I know that you always hear Me, but these people need to know that You have sent Me!” Undaunted by the stench, Jesus stooped as if to examine the remains that lay, wrapped in ceremonial burial cloths.

“Lazarus! Come out here!” He bellowed, as if beckoning an errant school child.

A shocked silence fell upon the group of mourners. What could He possibly be thinking? Had He gone mad in His grief? Did He really expect a response to His summons? But wait – there was a definite rustling sound coming from the tomb! What was this?! A cloth-bound head appeared above the ground! A soft grunt could be heard, as the shoulders followed. The grieving sisters watched in stunned disbelief! Was it all merely a bad dream, born from the depth of their grief? Now the mummified arms appeared, straining to lift the rest of the body from it’s stony prison. To the horror of the crowd, it appeared that the corpse was attempting to stand with much difficulty because of the wrapping of cloths.

Calmly, logically, they heard the Master’s voice – “Well, untie him, and let him go free!” He directed. Two sisters made a mad scramble for the body, tearing at the burial cloths.

“Lazarus! Lazarus! It’s really you!” they cried, still not sure that they could believe . “O Master, how can we ever thank You?”

“How about supper next time I’m in town?” He asked, eyes twinkling. With that He turned to go, leaving them to revel in their ecstasy.

Personal tragedy in the life of the believer – it is a concept that we need to understand, and know how to handle. Unfortunately, it happens to the best of us, and always at what seems to be the most inopportune time. In the case of Lazarus and his sisters, it represented not only the physical loss of a beloved brother, but also the economic crisis that would result from that loss. Theirs was a society in which little opportunity existed for the single woman, so the absence of the principal male character to any family, would present a potential calamity. Certainly, all of us who have experienced the loss of close family members can easily identify with the depth of emotional grief that the sisters of Lazarus must have faced. Their loss was not limited to their brother that day, it included their hopes, and dreams, and lifelong ambitions.

It began as a physical ailment – disconcerting at best, but not necessarily crucial if one is acquainted with the Healer. Still, a harried cry for help brought no visible response. As the story unfolds, it becomes evident that Jesus intentionally refrained from answering the initial request so that He would be able to demonstrate His power and love in a more tangible manner. “I am glad, for your sakes that I was not there”, he states, because he knew that the outcome of the tragedy would result in an increased faith to those that were witnesses to this scenario. Rather than a detached aloofness, there was a purpose to Jesus’ inactivity in this situation.

The response of Martha to the belated arrival of her Lord is one that we have all probably felt at some crucial point in our experience. “Lord, where were you?” is the cry of a grieving spirit that gives vent to the feeling of abandonment in the face of sorrow. When we suffer the pain of grief, it is comforting to be able to know that we are not alone. Nothing is quite so consoling as a simple telephone call to a grieving brother or sister – if only to say “I’m thinking about you, do you need to talk about your pain?” One doesn’t need to be able to offer a lot of wise counsel, for the most part, it simply takes the ability to lend a sympathetic ear. Allowing the mourner to freely express his feelings without any fear of correction provides an invaluable forum for much-needed emotional healing.

“But even now, I believe that God will give You whatever You ask for!” What an incredible statement of faith! Very few of us would have the strength to make such a proclamation, when it appears that the situation is beyond hope. “My faith may be battered by circumstances, but if someone would ask for me – if someone would intercede on my behalf – I know that God would answer.” We cannot expect that one who is trying to deal with the grief, will have the spiritual strength within themselves, to approach God for the impossible. They desperately need someone to stand in the gap for them, providing the strength that is found in numbers, and the power that comes when two are in agreement concerning the matter. We can learn a valuable lesson in ministering to the grieving by following Jesus example as He took Mary in His arms and allowed Himself to freely share in the emotion of the moment. The shortest verse in the Bible – “Jesus wept” is, in many respects, also the most profound. It demonstrates to us that we do not serve a God who cannot be touched by our emotions. Contrary to an often widely accepted point of conjecture, I do not believe that the cause of the tears was a feeling of remorse for having to re-introduce Lazarus to an existence of pain and sorrow. Rather, I believe that it was a practical demonstration of the admonition to “weep with those who weep”. If we were to examine the wording in the original language we would find that the statement does not indicate that Jesus simply developed a mild case of “emotional sniffles”. As He took those grieving sisters in His arms that afternoon, He literally bawled. In so doing, He allowed them to view the depth of grief that He felt on their behalf.

Having shared in the moment of grief, it was now appropriate to offer some tangible relief to the grief-stricken family. His first words “Remove the stone” were totally unnerving and met with the opposition of logic. It was not a rational course of action. The body had been entombed for four days, undoubtedly decay had begun to set in – the stench would be unbearable. Unaffected by human rationale, Jesus repeats His command – knowing that it was, to the human bystanders, a moment of revelation. Today, they would witness that He truly was The Resurrection and The Life. Certainly, the deceased man responded to the voice and authority of the Resurrection, appearing, still bound up in the grave clothes of the dead. As the audience gaped in shock, unable to comprehend the significance of the moment, they were brought back to reality by the logic of the Resurrection as He commanded – “Loose him and let him go!” Certainly, we can relate to that human response to the miraculous – the stunned moment of disbelief in the face of what has been quite visible. At that moment we hear the voice of the Teacher instructing us to take the next step of faith. It may not be totally profound, but it is certainly a word that we need to hear in order to bring us back to the reality of the present.

The family’s response to the miracle was, undoubtedly, one of inexpressible relief and gratitude. On the part of the religious factions of the day, however, the response was one of indignation fueled by a refusal to believe. So strong was the determination to discount the miracle that a plot was devised to murder Lazarus. It was a response dating back to Elijah’s time, and would certainly determine Jesus destiny – “if you don’t like the message – simply eliminate the messenger!” Again, in today’s culture, one can see the same dynamics at work, although we have probably become much more sophisticated in our approach. More in keeping with modern society, the sentiment would probably be expressed as “if you don’t like the evangelist – have his program banned from the airwaves” or “if you don’t like the pastor – see that he gets voted out of office”. The Enemy delights in finding ways, and using even the most religious of persons, to snuff out the Life that makes Himself known to us.

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