Charles Dickens begins A Christmas Carol, his well known story about Ebenezer Scrooge with these words: "Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner." Later on Dickens says, "There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate."
We might use similar words to describe the scene in today's Gospel as Jesus approached the town of His friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. This was the fourth day of mourning for him. Mary and Martha, his sisters knew he was dead. The people who prepared his body and laid it in the tomb knew he was dead. There is no doubt that Lazarus was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story in today's Gospel.
Lazarus had lived with his sisters Mary and Martha in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. Now, Mary and Martha must go on without the support of their brother. They knew He was with the Lord and they took comfort in the fact that his soul and body would be joined together again on the last day when God raised the dead, but for now they would miss him and they grieved.
Although it was the custom then as it is now for the community to lend their support to those who grieved, the grieving family also hired people to mourn with them. The family of Lazarus must have been fairly well off, for there were many mourners who came out from Jerusalem to support these sisters in their time of grief. Now the tradition in those days was for seven days of mourning after the death of a loved one. So when Jesus arrived on the fourth day, He arrived in the middle of the mourning period.
This was the situation when first Martha and then Mary came out to meet Jesus as He approached Bethany. Both sisters greeted the Lord with the same words, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." At first, these words might seem to be an angry expression of frustration at Jesus for not coming in time to prevent the death of Lazarus, but listen to Martha as she continues, "But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you." And notice Mary's action of worship as she approached Jesus. Our Gospel tells us that when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet. Even though their brother's death had beaten and stretched their faith, these two sisters still held on to their hope in Jesus Christ. Even though the future looked bleak, they still trusted Jesus to get them through it.
It wasn't long after Jesus met with Martha and Mary that they were on their way to the tomb. As Mary, Martha, Jesus, and the mourners arrived at the tomb, Jesus had them open it. He had a teaching for this gathering. He began His teaching with a prayer to the Father. He wanted this group of mourners to understand that He and the Father are one in purpose and that the Father sent Him into the world. When he finished His prayer, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out." He who called the world into existence called Lazarus back from death. Lazarus had no choice. He came forth, burial shroud and all.
Here Jesus demonstrated that marvelous word that He spoke to Martha earlier when He told her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die." Everyone who stood by that tomb now understood that these were not just empty words. They could see Lazarus and they knew that Jesus was the Lord of Life. Now Jesus' earlier words that He had said to the disciples made sense, "This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it."
Our Gospel tells us that many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him. These people had been looking for Messiah all their lives and now Jesus has brought their good friend Lazarus back from death. The words of Isaiah come to mind, [Isaiah 9:2] The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.
In contrast to the wonderful hope and faith that God sustained in Mary and Martha, our Gospel now tells us about the rejection of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. Our Gospel says, "ůsome of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council." Did the members of this council of the Sanhedrin discuss the wonders God had done in Bethany? No, they reacted to Jesus in fear. What about the witness of a man who had been dead and in the grave for nearly four days, but now walked about alive and well? How could these Jewish leaders say no to this evidence? But they did. They confirmed the words of Jesus when he said, [Luke 16:31] 'If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead. In contrast to those who saw Lazarus alive and believed, they went into emergency session and came to the conclusion that Jesus must die. In fact, we learn in the chapter following our Gospel that they eventually decided that Lazarus also should die. The only difficulty was how to kill them in a way that at least appeared legal.
One of the many teachings in our Gospel today is the contrast of the way of life and the way of death. The way of life is the way where Christ leads us and ultimately leads to eternal bliss with God. Mary and Martha demonstrated this way of life even in the face of death. The way of death, on the other hand, leads away from Christ to eternal, solitary suffering in the pit of hell. The Sanhedrin demonstrated the way of death even in the face of life.
Jesus prepared the way of life when He took on human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He Himself became the way of life for us as He humbled Himself under the law and lived a perfect life in our place. He became the way when He died and faced death on death's home turf. Jesus took our sins to the grave and battled death on our behalf. He rose victorious over the grave and now He is the way that leads to life eternal. We who believe in Jesus Christ know that death on this earth is only a door to a new eternal life with God in heaven.
We also know that all other ways are part of the way of death. It's as if the way of death is a large multilane Highway. Many in our world today tell us that all roads lead to the same place. They don't understand that the roads they describe are only lanes on the way of death and, while all these roads do lead to the same place, that place is a destination of sadness and despair beyond all tragedy. The Sanhedrin took several heavily traveled lanes on this way. They took the lanes that grasp for the things of this world, power, prestige, wealth, comfort, and always wanting more. They allowed these things to blind their eyes to the way of life, and they rejected it.
We are in danger of following the Sanhedrin down these lanes on the way of death. These lanes are especially tempting to us as we live in this extremely wealthy and materialistic society. We often find ourselves gathering the things of this world that cannot serve us beyond the grave at the expense of the spiritual things that last forever. We are tempted to surrender our eternal life for the temporary comforts of this world.
The only route away from the way of death is through faith in Jesus Christ. This faith is not something we can earn. It is not something we can decide to have. It is a free gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives us faith and maintains it using God's Word and Sacrament. We can see the Holy Spirit at work in our Gospel as He kept Mary and Martha on the way of life even as they mourned their brother's death.
The way of life is full of paradoxes. The on ramp to the way of life is a way of death for the Old Adam. Through water combined with God's Word, Baptism drowns the Old Adam and creates a new creature in each of us. Through Baptism we are joined to Christ's crucifixion and we receive the righteousness He earned for us with His holy life. Through Baptism we join Jesus and He leads us on the way of life.
As we follow Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and the other believers on the way of life, we find that Satan keeps bringing that Old Drowned Adam back to haunt us. He keeps trying to seduce us off the way of life back onto the way of death. Christ stands beside us and before us during these attacks. He blunts the attack and strengthens us with His Holy Word. He even gives us His own body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar to strengthen our faith in the face of the enemy. As Christ strengthened Mary and Martha during their time of grief, He will also be with us through all trials on this road until at last we arrive in His eternal home. Amen.
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