When she had said this, Martha went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus was late to the funeral. The text makes it clear – Mary and Martha had been mourning for four days. The Jewish people in their community came to comfort them. The funeral home director had been called, the body taken to the tomb, and the family had come in, a strange mix of uncles you never see and second cousins you wish you had never seen. And despite this eclectic mix of people who had all come, we may find it shocking… that Jesus was late to the funeral.
What might be more shocking, though, isn’t that Jesus was late because he overslept. Nor was he late because he had an important miracle to perform or a demon to exorcise. No, Jesus was late to the funeral not for some excuse such as this, but because the text tells us it was not his intention to show up on time. Somehow, Jesus had convinced himself that this tragedy of Lazarus would not result in death but would result in the glory of God. The scene really is quite startling: Jesus had gone across the Jordan when he got word that his friend was ill. The message came from his friends, Mary and Martha, and they pleaded him: “Lord, our brother whom you love is ill. Come quickly.” But the remarkably human Jesus in this episode heard the news and took it rather dispassionately. He stayed right where he was, unbothered, perhaps tempted to remain distant from death, not willing to take the risk to confront it directly.
You see, up until this point in the Gospel of John, Jesus had not yet tasted the bitter reality of death up close. He healed the sick and gave sight to the blind. In fact, Jesus even healed a Galilean official’s son from death earlier in the book – but he did it without even seeing the boy. He remained far away while the boy died alone in a distant, dusty room. Until now, Jesus hasn’t had to smell death, see death, hear death, touch death, or taste death. And so when he gets that message, he figures, “Maybe it’s not yet worth it yet. I’ll deal with it when the time comes.” And so Jesus, aloof from the bitter power of death, nonchalantly showed up late to the funeral.
I think you and I know what it feels like for Jesus to show up late to the funeral. You and I have been invited to every kind of funeral imaginable in this world. Last week, 10 people were killed in a Texas high school, and 100+ were killed when a plane went down in Cuba. In this country, we fight over rights to yield weapons that gun down children in schools and on streets. Thousands die every year from insufficient access to healthcare, and in our own homes we grieve the loss of loved ones gone far too soon. And at every one of these funerals, whether metaphorical or literal, we sit in the visitation room, staring at the front door wondering to ourselves – “Why is Jesus late to this funeral? Why is Jesus not here?”
Mary and Martha knew this sentiment deeply. When Jesus first shows up to town, Martha comes out to meet him and says plain and simple, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Lord, if you had just shown up. If you had taken the reality of human death seriously instead of remaining aloof from its bitter taste, Lazarus would not have died. If you had just heard our call, there wouldn’t be a funeral in the first place. Instead, we’re sitting here at the funeral home, and to make it worse, now you show up late.
But the temptation doesn’t just affect Jesus. Some of us have showed up late to the funeral. I know I have. Day by day I am confronted by the reality of human death and suffering in this world. I’m given information on TV and on my phone that people in this world need my help. People in my own community need an ally to walk with them, to join with them through my time and efforts. The Church, too, knows the calling to respond to the mass of human suffering happening right outside our front doors. But so often, when faced with the same temptation Jesus faced here, we remain aloof from the bitter taste of death, and instead of taking a risk to enter the fray – we try to explain it away, saying that it will all be worked for God’s glory so that we feel better about our decision to remain on the other side of the Jordan.
I am reminded of that ancient story of Siddhartha Gautama, the man that would later go on to be known as the Buddha. His father was a king and raised him in wealth and opulence to try to hide him from the reality of human suffering. His father would even host parades immaculately conceived so as to conceal the sick and the mourning. Yet one evening, the young Gautama left the palace and saw a sick person, then an elderly person, and then a corpse. His eyes were open to the reality of human suffering for the first time, and he was faced with a choice: do I take a risk and enter in the suffering of the world – or do I return to my life of luxury and live trying to unsee what I just saw?
In a similar way, Jesus shows up to the outskirts of Bethany late to the funeral, and after a painful conversation with Martha, he calls for Mary. Now, Jesus intended this to be a private matter, perhaps ashamed that he was late. He tells Martha, “Go to Mary, but go in secret. I don’t want my late arrival to be a big ordeal. Just tell her in secret.” But Jesus was not yet acquainted with the bitter taste of human death. He didn’t know that it affected the whole community. He wasn’t expecting there to be a room full of runny tears and the sound of sniffles that go on for days. So when Martha goes to back to the funeral home with Mary and the crowd of Jews, Mary gets up and runs out; but she does it rather publicly. And all the family of Jews that were there to comfort her, all those loved ones, uncles, and second cousins that are so often well-intentioned but just seem to make a painful situation more complicated – well they see her leave, and they get right up and run out with her!
Meanwhile, Jesus, who was trying to retain a clandestine presence outside the funeral home, sees Mary running full speed towards him followed by that eclectic crowd of friends and family. He stands outside the city walls and puts his face in his palm and says, “My Father in Heaven I did not mean for all of them to show up!” You see, Jesus was trying to stay aloof from the bitter reality of human death, but it came running out of the funeral home to meet him in person. Because before he knows it, Mary has thrown herself down at his feet. She’s weeping bitter tears, and she says to him that same line, “Lord if you had been here my brother Lazarus would not be dead.” And Jesus, who had been trying to stay aloof from this bitter reality, suddenly looks around sees how human death is causing this community to unravel before his eyes. He hears the loud sniffs of snotty noses in grief. He sees the glisten of the sun on tear-streaked faces of the whole community. He feels Mary grabbing, shaking at his ankles, reminding him of how she will anoint his feet not too long from now. He smells the anointing spices still on her hands used on the body of her brother, and he tastes the salt of the tears now coming from his own eyes. And in his mind he sees the face of Lazarus, his friend, who he loved and cared for so dearly.
It’s like this text is inviting us to watch in slow motion as something deep inside of Jesus snaps. All of a sudden, Jesus realizes that the power of human death isn’t just a private matter to be avoided. It’s a threat to the community and it’s a threat to the entirety of God’s creation. And, out of nowhere, Jesus is overcome with emotion. In fact, the Greek word used here, embrimaomai, literally means “he snorted.” Some take this to mean Jesus was angry; others say it means Jesus expressing inexpressible grief. Whatever it means, what’s clear is that Jesus, who avoided risk and showed up late to this funeral, was suddenly faced the bitter reality of human death in all of its gruesome details, and he was so overcome with human emotion that he let out a snort! We watch as Jesus sees the pain that death creates, and he doubles over, filled with grief, and clenches his fists, ready to burst out with anger or sorrow or who knows what.
Interestingly, though, most scholars think that Jesus was so overcome with emotion here not just because he was grieving over Lazarus, but because he knew that it would be a risk to raise Lazarus from the dead. If you read John 11 closely in its context, you’ll see that Jesus clearly knew what would happen to him if he revealed himself to be the Messiah. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is strangely omniscient about the events surrounding his life and death, and he knows that if he raises Lazarus from the dead, many of the Jews in his company will come to believe in him. But he also knew that if many of the Jews came to believe in him, the Pharisees will notice and plot to kill him. For some reason or another, even in the time of Jesus, whenever a bunch of people get passionate faith deep in their bones – someone is going to call a church board meeting.
I am reminded of that non-canonical work of art, Sister Act, in which casino-worker-turned-Gospel-singer Mary Clarence is assigned to a San Francisco nunnery as part of a witness protection program. The sisters in control don’t like her that much and assign her to work with the choir in order to keep her quiet (which is a wonderful bit of irony). Mary Clarence wasn’t content to just sing the ordinary mass, though. She had passionate faith deep in her bones and decided to lead the choir in a rock and roll rendition of “Hail Holy Queen.” But of course, the Reverend Mother was infuriated at the performance. It just seems to be that whenever people get passionate faith deep in their bones, someone has to call a board meeting. It’s a real risk for us to have that kind of faith – because doing our duty to stand up to suffering oftentimes gets the authorities involved. Should we still do it considering what could happen to us?
Jesus knew exactly what would happen if he raised Lazarus. If he goes through with this, people will believe, and if people believe, the authorities will come after him. The risk of Lazarus isn’t just that Jesus will no longer be able to hide from the bitterness of death; the risk of Lazarus is that if he performs this miracle, he will decisively start down the path that will lead to his own death. It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus lets out a holy snort: he’s faced with the power death has over his loved ones and his community, but he’s also faced with the reality that if he calls this man from the dead – there will be no turning back. But thanks be to God, Jesus chooses to confront death anyways despite the risk it means for himself. And so after the emotion ravages his body and soul, forces him to double over, he stands back up with authority, now a changed person – and takes a risk. Knowing what he will do, he turns to the crowd and says, “Where have you laid him?” In this pivotal moment in the Gospel of John, Jesus risks it all to confront the power of death in the world.
But that’s not all – Jesus is still confronting the power of death in this world. Take my denomination, for example. When the refugee crisis was starting to garner attention from U.S. news outlets in 2015, many were driven to inexpressible emotion when an image circulated of a young boy washed up on the beach. The image showed the bitterness of human death in all its awful colors, and there were some in the Church of the Nazarene who doubled over in pain when they saw it. They could have accepted the temptation to remain aloof from the reality of death in this world, but that’s not what happened. Instead, compassionate Nazarenes from all over America left everything behind and moved to another continent, risking everything they could to help. Why? They were motivated by the love of Jesus. Isn’t that something? 2,000 years later, and here he is again, this Jesus, risking it all even today.
The truth is, we all live in a funeral home world, a world where it seems like God is late to the service. We watch in horror as the power of human death and suffering threatens to unravel the very communities and creation that God has spoken into existence. And as we watch, so many of us feel a calling to risk it all and enter the battle to confront the power of death in this world. But so often it gets unbearable, it seems like we make no progress, and the temptation to remain aloof from death’s bitter taste becomes too overwhelming to ignore.
But John wants us to know that before we ever even had the thought or the call, Jesus risked it all first. Despite the risk, Jesus stared down the tomb of Lazarus and decisively confronted the power of death in this world, and we can be assured that day by day, when suffering and death become real in our lives, Jesus is doubled over next to us, snorting with inexpressible emotion, moved with compassion to risk it all. And as Jesus risks it all even today, we can be confident children of God unafraid of death, so that we too might double over with compassion, utter a holy snort, and boldly approach the reality of death in this world and risk it all with the assurance that Christ Jesus is right there with us, putting the final enemy under his feet, inviting us to do the same.
And if you’d like to enter into the suffering and risk it all – I know the funeral has already started, but I’m sure the crowd wouldn’t mind if you showed up late.