Monday: Grieving a False Jesus

Holy Week opens tonight with John’s story of Jesus’ final meal with the Bethany siblings, and we’re going to trace Mary’s story.

She was the sister of Lazarus and Martha, and she knew grief.

Mary’s first grief was the death of her brother.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were probably the closest thing Jesus had to personal friends.

If the twelve apostles were his chosen students and fellow ministers, the Bethany siblings were the ones he went to when he needed some downtime.

They spent many an evening together in the little house in Bethany, laughing, talking, eating, and sharing their lives.

We know how close they are from a thousand small details in the text, not the least of which is the sisters’ message to Jesus begging him for help: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

But Jesus doesn’t come. He doesn’t arrive.

For some greater purpose, Jesus does not come to the rescue, and the worst happens. Lazarus dies.

Mary loved Jesus as a friend, as a teacher, as a companion of her heart.

She loved him, and she believed in him. Moreover, she trusted him.

But now Lazarus is dead, and Mary and Martha blame Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” they both say.

Mary’s grief for her brother is mixed and mingled with an equally deep grief she can barely bring herself to acknowledge: she is grieving the death of the Jesus she thought she knew.

The Jesus she thought she knew was reliable. When someone near him was ill or dealing with disability, he healed them, without question.

But not this time.

The Jesus she thought she knew was compassionate and understanding. When Mary brought her questions and longings to him, he listened and led her to joyful new understanding.

But not this time.

The Jesus Mary thought she knew is as dead as Lazarus, and Mary’s grief consumes her.

“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved…Jesus began to weep.”

Jesus is grieving also, and his grief is as complex as Mary’s.

He is grieving the death of his beloved friend Lazarus, but he is also grieving what may be the death of his relationship with Mary and Martha.

It certainly seems to be the death of their faith in him.

We know what happens next. Jesus calls Lazarus back to life, and a scene of joy and frightening amazement unfolds.

But Mary’s grief remains.

We know it does because of a moment described in our text today from Gospel of John.

Martha, ever practical, probably thinks, “I knew Jesus would come through for us!” and is soon back to bustling around her kitchen as always.

But although the wound of Lazarus’ death was healed, the wound of the death of Mary’s faith in Jesus was not.

After Lazarus is raised, Jesus goes back on the road to heal and teach. They mend fences enough in the aftermath of the miracle for them to part as friends.

But when Jesus returns to the house in Bethany, six days before the Passover, very near the end of his life, Mary does something remarkable. We read tonight that “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”

Judas immediately criticizes her for it, insisting in outraged indignation that the money should have been used for the poor. But Jesus says, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

I have always thought of this moment in relationship to Jesus’ approaching death on the Cross.

But now I am connecting it to Jesus’ death in Mary’s heart when he did not save Lazarus.

I think this ritual action creates a deeply important transition in Mary’s life.

She is anointing for burial the Jesus she had demanded—the false idol built up her in her mind, a magical miracle machine, someone who would ride to the rescue on a white horse whenever she was in trouble.

She worked through her grief over the false Jesus she had to let die, and with this perfume, anoints that Jesus and buries him forever.

Now she is free to be in relationship with the real Jesus.

The real Jesus does not always perform on demand how we want him to, but the end of the story is always resurrection.

Mary says yes to that—to accepting that Jesus will heal and raise up, but not in our time according to our requirements.

And having grieved her old false Jesus with integrity, she is now ready to accompany the actual living Jesus to the Cross and the final Resurrection of the empty tomb.

Her grief mattered, and it showed her how strong she could become if she let her faith in him grow and change.

So how are we called to grieve Jesus tonight, at the beginning of Holy Week?

There is time to grieve his death on the Cross, but that is some days off yet.

Tonight we are called to grieve all the false Jesuses we have created in our minds and hearts, the Jesuses that serve our own ends, never say anything that makes us uncomfortable, and never ask us to do anything we’d rather not do.

We can follow Mary’s example and grieve who we thought Jesus was.

Then, like her, we will be liberated to follow him as he truly is, our devotion fiercer than ever.

He told us himself, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

We kneel at his feet at this holy meal, just as Mary did, and we look up into his eyes and see complete acceptance and love.

That gives us the courage to trust him with our grief, so we can then trust him with our lives.



Author’s Note: This sermon is a modified excerpt of the book I’m writing, called The Darker Blessings: Finding God in Doubt, Depression, and Other Bad Breaks.  I hope you liked it!


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