Ale & Teviot United Church


Lessons from Martha and Mary

27 March 2011 : John 11: 17-37 [p. 1078]

Once again we pick up the story of Lazarus, and we find Jesus arriving at Bethany, too late to save his friend – or so it appeared. Lazarus had been in the tomb, in those days a cave sealed with a rock, for four days now. The two sisters of the dead man, Martha and Mary, were understandably distraught. Interesting to note the reaction of each of the women. True to form, Martha, had to be doing something. It was Martha who came out to meet Jesus and the disciples, whilst Mary stayed at home with her thoughts.

Yet if you’d wanted to invest £5 of your hard-earned cash on one of the sisters having faith for the miracle that was about to unfold, I think most of us would have plumped for Mary being the woman of “power for the hour”. But no. It was Martha, See how she speaks to Jesus : v.22 : Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask. Compare that statement with what Mary said : Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Full stop.

Do you see the massive difference between those two declarations? Mary had faith for a past that, sadly, hadn’t happened. Martha had faith for a miracle. The first sentence to fall from each sister’s lips was identical, word for word. Martha, however, added a vital confession : no matter how grim the situation is, no matter the fact that my brother died and was buried four days ago, I still believe, Jesus, that you can turn this around.

Now, the whole idea of God intervening miraculously in the affairs of this world may be way, way out there as far as we are concerned. It’s not something we’ve experienced and, if we were honest, it’s not something we’ve expected either. That sort of thing was only in and for Biblical times, or at least that’s what we have been taught. And we may be thinking to ourselves that it was all very well for Martha, who saw Jesus healing the sick, giving the blind their sight, and making the lame to walk, to believe – but not us.

In the same way, I suppose, as we see the Easter story unfolding, and people who had once followed Jesus and sung Hosanna now deserting Jesus in droves, we might think – well, if I had seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears all that Jesus said or did, I would never have deserted him. And although, yes, I’ve had similar thoughts myself, I have to say they are mistaken thoughts, and I’m going to try to explain why.

The only evidence available to the people who walked with Jesus, and fellowshipped with Jesus, and witnessed Jesus at work, was what they saw and heard of his life as a human being. The Jesus they knew was someone who ate and drank and laughed and cried and slept and sweated – a remarkable and wonderful man, but, as far as they were aware whilst Jesus still lived and breathed among them, only a man.

They did not, and could not, fully comprehend what we are privileged to know now, that Jesus was so much more than just a good man. Why Because they did not have in their possession the one crucial piece that made the jigsaw complete – that He would die on the cross in our place and on the third day be raised to life again.
The crowds that went around with Jesus did not have a New Testament, a documented account of Jesus’ ministry including the astonishing climax to it, where He laid down His perfect life to give new life to those of us who, under our own steam, were far from perfect. They did not have the testimony of Paul, the one-time dragon-breathed bigot who went to extreme lengths to exterminate the Jesus movement, only for Jesus himself to meet him on the road and turn his life round 180 degrees.

This may sound strange at first, but if you think about it, it’s entirely logical – what we have in our possession about Jesus, the scriptures that relate how He ministered to the people in His life, in His death, in His resurrection, in the 40 days before He returned to the Father, and through the ongoing presence and power of His Holy Spirit, outweighs by far the partial understanding that Mary and Martha, and even the 12, had in the days before Easter. Going back to the two sisters, based on the evidence available to them at that time, Mary said absolutely nothing wrong, whilst Martha had faith in the fast lane!

Martha was able to believe FOR Lazarus to be raised from the dead, whereas Mary was able to believe only after she had seen this miracle. As I’ve said, that’s not meant as a criticism of Mary, but as a compliment to Martha. Because she has acknowledged, in an act of tremendous faith under horrendous circumstances, the supernatural ability of Jesus to do what past experience and plain commonsense would consider impossible, Jesus is able to make her the promise in v.23 : Your brother will rise again.

At first, Martha doesn’t fully appreciate what an awesome statement Jesus has made. She is already aware that life is a precious gift of God that nothing as banal as illness or ill-fortune can snuff it out, and initially she assumes that Jesus is merely reassuring her that, one day, she will see Lazarus, not on earth but in heaven. So Jesus goes back and expands on the theme, and in so doing leaves us with the best-known and best-loved of all His I AM sayings, The Message translation of which I use at services of committal.

“I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?” By now, Martha has twigged that Jesus is about to do something way beyond the frontiers of her understanding. She acknowledges Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, goes to fetch her sister Mary. Martha is now expecting the unexpected.

You know, Jesus still looks to break miraculously into the affairs of this world, Jesus still longs to touch people broken by disease, despair, disappointment and poverty of every imaginable kind and restore them to the fullness of life that has always been His perfect purpose for each and every one of us. Galatians 3.13f teaches that, in sheer love and grace, Jesus has redeemed us from the curse attached to human disobedience.

He did this by becoming a curse for us – as the Bible says, everyone who is hanged on a tree is cursed, and what is the cross but a chunk of a tree? – to break forever the power of that curse over believers and release to us the fullness of God’s blessing first promised to Abraham, our forefather in the faith.
Illness, hunger, loneliness, depression and so on are manifestations of the curse. Health, prosperity, strong families, peace, joy, fulfilment, are all manifestations of the blessing. Jesus suffered and died to destroy the curse over believers and release the blessing. So why are so many members of the church still sick, broke, busted and disgusted? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s absurd, if not downright insulting to the passion of the Christ, for us still to be suffering when Jesus has suffered in our place.

But the reason why that happens is that, until very recently, church people, especially Scottish Presbyterian church people, have never been given the least encouragement to believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ offers anything in this life beyond a stiff upper lip and courage to endure stoically to the end. Hate to tell you, but that kind of belief is a gross misrepresentation of what the Bible teaches. Jesus never put a sell-by date on His promises. He is the same yesterday, today, forever – but now He is in Heaven.

Now, Jesus needs people willing to let Him work through them by the power of His Holy Spirit to keep up the good work. In a few months we’ll get to John 14.12 where Jesus says that, when He’s gone back to Heaven and the Holy Spirit has come, anyone who has faith in Him will do the same things as He has been doing, indeed even greater things. Paul writes in Ephesians 3.20 of the Holy Spirit being able to immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine … according to His power that is at work within us.

Jesus still wants to intervene miraculously in the hurting places of the world He loves and died to save, but He’s not stretched out on a settee in heaven with a cup of coffee, pressing a remote control. Just as Jesus needed a body when he was here on earth to do his stuff, so He needs a body now. And as we see in 1 Corinthians 12, the church is meant to be the body of Christ and the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit.

To ensure that the fullness of His saving, redeeming grace reaches the people of this nation at this moment in history, Jesus needs people ready to expect the unexpected and go for it. In our story, Martha was … but Mary wasn’t, and the black depth of her grief touches right to the heart of Jesus, We see in v.35 : Jesus wept. Why? Not for Himself. Jesus wasn’t mourning for a dead friend, because that friend was about to be more truly alive than ever. Not for Lazarus either. Jesus knew Lazarus was coming back into this life in a matter of minutes, and would live forever spiritually.

So why the tears? There is another place we find Jesus weeping, in Luke 19 where He weeps over the city of Jerusalem as He contemplates the fate awaiting that city for their rejection of Him. By AD70, less than 40 years after Easter, Jerusalem was in ruins. Jesus foretells in Luke 19.46 that this disaster would be a direct consequence of the people of Jerusalem refusing to recognise Him when He came to them. Jesus wept for the unbelief of the people, and I suspect it was the same in our passage today.

Even Mary, even the 12, didn’t get it. And as for the rest of the people, it was becoming increasingly clear that their minds were unresponsive and their hearts were cold. Thus far would they go in their faith and trust in Him, but no further.
I wonder if Jesus still weeps for His unbelieving people today? I wonder if the Saviour still breaks His heart over our reluctance to receive His grace, to believe His promises, to take Him at his Word, to rest in His provision, to take upon ourselves His light and easy yoke, to obey His teaching, to allow ourselves to be used to do the same things as He has been doing, indeed even greater things ; to let Him do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us?

I wonder if our picture of Jesus is way too small? I wonder if we should agree today to do something really daring, really outrageous, to start living as if what is written in this book, and in particular the New Testament, is actually true? Don’t let our unbelief bring tears to Jesus’ eyes. Let’s be bold to make the same declaration of faith that Martha did, and on far more robust evidence than Martha had.

Let’s have faith to believe in our hearts and speak with our lips – Romans 10.9f – Lord, no matter what a mess my life is in right now, no matter what problems are piling up round about me, no matter how hopeless my situation looks in the natural, I still believe, Jesus, that you can turn this around. I know that even now God will give me whatever I ask in Your Name, trusting in all that You are and all that You have done.

Indeed, let’s go beyond that, because it’s not just about us. No matter what a mess the world is in, no matter how much it seems the lunatics are running the asylum, let’s be bold to say : I still believe, Jesus, that you can turn this around. I know that even now You will use me whenever I make myself available in Your Name, trusting in all that You are and all that You have done, to wipe away the tears of others, to let You work miracles of love and kindness through my willing, humble, and obedient hands.

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