Monday: Who Are You at the House in Bethany?
Jesus has come to our house tonight.
He has less than a week to live, and he has chosen to spend time with us.
What can we offer him?
It depends on who we are in this story in the gospel of John.
First of all, the reason I say Jesus has come to our house tonight is because we are all Lazarus. We were baptized in the death of Christ and raised to new life in Christ.
Just like Lazarus, we died in our sin and Jesus brought us back to new life.
So place yourself in that symbolic reality, because there is more than one part to play in the little house in Bethany tonight, and it is very easy to slip from one role to another.
We start with Martha.
We don’t hear a lot from her in this story, she is simply her faithful self, doing what she knows and what makes her happy.
We read only two words about her in the passage: “Martha served.”
It is a worthy role for a worthy person, and something we could all emulate. Serving our Lord by serving other people is holy work, and it is available to us at almost any moment of any day.
And this service was very valuable to Jesus in this moment.
Who knows what was going through his mind and heart, what complex swirl of fear and anxiety and grief he must have been enduring?
And in the midst of that, Martha provided him with a good meal.
She did not try to comfort or coddle him.
She did not try to stop or change the events unfolding.
She saw a need she could minister to and did so.
As we all know, in the midst of catastrophe unfolding, the simple needs of food, water, shelter, and warm human connection are always the baseline necessity beneath the cacophony of crisis.
Even though the world is ending, someone has to get dinner on the table.
That is Martha.
“Martha served,” and it was a great service to her Lord. That is worth remembering for us.
Next we have Mary.
Mary makes an extravagant, essentially useless gesture in practical terms, but it is deeply moving to Jesus.
She anoints his feet with expensive perfume and wipes them with her hair, what Jesus calls a preparation of his body for burial.
This is a moment of profound physical intimacy, loyalty, and love.
Jesus says, “She bought [the perfume] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
Although Mary may not realize it consciously, she has somehow understood how to relate to Jesus both as he is alive and when he will be dead in a very short time.
She is anointing him for burial while he is still alive—and that is important to Jesus.
How can we emulate Mary?
We cannot literally go and anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume, but that is not what Jesus appreciated about her act.
He loved her because she was not afraid of his death, and wanted to be close to him both in death and in life, in one continuum.
We certainly have the ability to relate to Jesus when death is in the room.
Anytime we look for holiness and bring love in when death is near, we are anointing Jesus’ feet.
That means literal death, when we’re in a hospital room with a friend or a loved one, or the many, many deaths that surround us every day—the death of marriages, of churches, of jobs and opportunities, of friendships.
There is death all around us every day, and most of the time our instinct is to deny it, to hide from it, to shove it away and call it ugly.
Mary sees how death and life are intertwined and transformed in the person of Jesus, and her love for him drives her to get up close and personal with it, encounter it with her own body, her hands and her hair.
Every time we respond to death with love, we are kneeling at the feet of Jesus and anointing him.
This is a moment that profoundly strengthens him for the ordeal he is about to undergo.
The next time death is in the room and we want to run away, we can remember that we have a choice.
A choice to deny, ignore, avoid, distance ourselves, or a choice to love, encounter, be vulnerable and intimate.
That choice may make the difference whether or not our Jesus has the strength to walk to his death.
It will not take much effort for us to emulate Judas.
Judas, the hated betrayer, is not an exaggeratedly evil person.
John insists that he stole from the common purse, but none of the other gospels characterize him that way.
He wants to help the poor, surely he is simply trying to do as Jesus has taught them.
But what we learn from this moment is that our motives matter as much as our actions. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is problematic.
It is not realistic that we can ever have truly pure and perfect motives for all of our actions of love and service.
We need to come to terms with that, to admit that along with all of our altruism is always at least a sliver of self-interest, even one as harmless as the desire for the positive emotional aftermath of doing a good deed.
Jesus is not asking us to always have pure and perfect motives. What he does want is for us to be honest about our motives with ourselves and with him, and that is what Judas refuses to do in this moment.
He is, as each of us does every single day, trying to look good in front of others and in front of Jesus, trying to make himself look better by making someone else look bad.
That is not worthy of someone who is a disciple.
Isn’t it amazing that even right at the eve of his betrayal of Jesus, Judas is still caught up in the petty politics of jockeying for position in Jesus’ inner circle?
When do we do that?
How often do we lose track of what is really important because our focus becomes so narrowed, allowing small, petty problems and grievances to make us small and petty?
We have to remember what Judas does not: the events that will change the world are always right around the corner.
There is a much bigger story unfolding than the rise and fall of our own ego drama, and when we allow ourselves to be consumed by that drama, we miss Jesus.
“You do not always have me,” Jesus tells Judas, and that is very true.
When we lose focus on what Jesus is doing and where Jesus is calling us, we no longer have him.
He is doing the great work of salvation, and we will be left behind, like Judas, trying to win points with Jesus against other people and missing the greater story at work.
And when the story continues and we understand our ego drama for the vain and hollow sham that it is—when we see Jesus value Mary’s simple act of love over Judas’ pompous moral posturing—we will find ourselves along with Judas with only one option left open to us: betrayal.
Wounded pride is one of the most dangerous forces in the world, and when it is pricked, it lashes out with devastating and rash anger.
That may have been part of what drove Judas to take the action he would later so deeply regret that he took his own life.
Of course, the truth is that we cannot escape betraying Jesus.
We do it in a hundred small ways every day, and each of us can think of a few major high stakes moments in our lives when we knew the right thing to do and failed to do it.
What will save us from Judas’ unending despair?
The humility to know that we will fail, and the assurance that Jesus will forgive us and renew us for new growth when we do.
But here’s the truly interesting part about this story.
Each in their own way, Mary, Martha and Judas are all trying to earn Jesus’ favor with their actions.
Serving his meal, anointing his feet, proclaiming love for the poor—each is an action designed to show their faithfulness.
Jesus responds to the purity of heart of Mary and Martha and truly appreciates their efforts.
Judas’ words he exposes for the false game they are.
Only one person does not try to earn Jesus’ approval, and that’s Lazarus.
And only one person has a significant effect on the community around him, and that’s Lazarus.
Listen to the end of the story: “When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews…were believing in Jesus.”
Lazarus’ relationship with Jesus was always about faith beyond reality, and trust beyond reason.
Lazarus loved and trusted Jesus so much that he actually heard and followed Jesus’ voice after he died.
That is a depth of faith and trust so profound that it is difficult to comprehend.
And Lazarus does not do and does not need to do anything to prove himself to Jesus.
He simply knows that he is loved, and he responds to that.
This is what it means to have faith in Jesus.
It does not nullify Mary’s and Martha’s good works. We see how much Jesus values them.
But who is the one who influences the community around him?
Who is the one who is making other people believe in Jesus?
It is Lazarus.
And Lazarus is the one who abandons himself so utterly to Jesus’ care and love that he is ready when Jesus calls him back to life from his tomb.
This is what it means to be a witness to the resurrection and to the transformative love of Jesus Christ: to trust Jesus so comprehensively that we can respond to his call even when we are dead.
And like we talked about, there is abundant death in our lives long before our literal, physical deaths.
Like Lazarus, we’ve already been through this. That is what our baptism was, hearing the call of Jesus in our deadness, in our sin, and following him up through the depths into the light.
All of this action was on Jesus’ part.
We didn’t and we couldn’t earn this salvation with any action of our own.
Every breath that Lazarus draws on earth after Jesus brings him back is a gift, and this is how we should be living our lives.
It is not from the place of deed-doing that we will truly be influential on other people for evangelism.
It is from the place of having been radically transformed and brought into new life, like Lazarus.
And the thread that runs through it all is trust, deep and abiding faith in the love of Jesus.
It is just that simple, and just that hard.
What did Lazarus do in this story?
He shared table fellowship with Jesus and lived trusting his love.
What was the result of that?
Such huge crowds seeking Jesus out and believing in him that the authorities were angry.
What do we do at this altar tonight?
We will share table fellowship with him, and we have the opportunity to go forth trusting his love.
What will be the result of that?
That’s up to us.
But we might just change the world.
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