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Sabbath at Bethany

Sabbath at Bethany

John 11:28-44


This past week has been what our Orthodox brothers and sisters call “Lazarus Week.” Lazarus’s story began earlier in the week with his illness, which appeared to be sudden, and his equally sudden death. By Tuesday night Lazarus was no more, and they buried him the very next day, without their friend Jesus being there with them. Mary and Martha were devastated, not only by the loss of their brother but also because their beloved friend and mentor was not with them even though they had sent a messenger to advise him of Lazarus’s illness and death. But Jesus never appeared, so what were they to think?


The disciples noticed that Jesus was dawdling somewhat. It didn’t seem to be like him to ignore the summons of people from whom he had accepted hospitality on several occasions and who were friends and followers. Mary had sat at his feet and listened as he taught while Martha learned a sharp lesson that teaching and learning would last, a fancy lunch wouldn’t. The disciples didn’t understand any more than Mary and Martha did. It also seemed like Jesus had other things on his mind and he wasn’t sharing.


Jesus did finally arrive in Bethany, probably on Friday night or very early Saturday morning. Martha met him on the road and scolded him for not being there when they needed him the most. Jesus reminded her that he had many things to do. He also needed to see Mary. Martha went to the house and told Mary that Jesus was asking for her. I think at first Mary was reluctant to go, probably not just grieving the loss of her brother whom Jesus could have saved, but also feeling angry with Jesus for ignoring them when they called.


Mary finally went out and faced Jesus. She expressed how she felt, and Jesus soothed her and then went to the tomb. There, for the second time recorded in the Gospels, Jesus wept. The question comes, was he weeping because Lazarus was dead or was he weeping for what was coming?


Jesus had the stone rolled away from the doorway and called Lazarus forth from the tomb. Mary and Martha were disconcerted, reminding Jesus that Lazarus had been dead for several days and by now would be rather malodorous with decay as was usual for dead bodies. Jesus paid them no mind. Lazarus obediently hobbled to the doorway of the tomb still encased in his grave clothes. There were no signs of putrefaction, and so people rushed to take the grave linens off him, all the while being more than amazed at what they were seeing.


Mary and Martha, it is said, had faith, but like a lot of us, sometimes that faith gets a bit shaky when tremendous things happen that make us feel deprived or abandoned. Nonetheless, they had a good reason for celebration that Lazarus was alive and home again with them.


Jesus was just one week away from death himself, an end he had tried to warn his disciples of, but, like a lot of things, they simply did not get the message Jesus intended for them to understand. He would have a busy week ahead of him beginning on Sunday going into Jerusalem, but for Saturday, he could rest, observe the Sabbath, and be with friends. I’m sure they did a lot of talking that evening, and there were a lot of unanswered questions. But it was the last Sabbath for Jesus, the final period of sustained rest he would have before all the events of what we call Holy Week.


When we think of Lazarus Saturday, we probably don’t think of Lazarus at all. We are busy buying Easter baskets and eggs to dye, all kinds of candy (both chocolate and non-chocolate), getting ready for a big Easter dinner, maybe at grandma’s house, and in some traditions getting the ham ready to cook on Holy Saturday night so that it would be prepared to eat on Sunday. At least that was the way it was done at our house when I was growing up. I miss it.


We observe Palm Sunday in the church, but it doesn’t seem to have the pull that Easter Sunday does. We have all heard jokes about Christmas and Easter Christians, those who show up for the big holidays but whom we may not see the rest of the year. In my opinion, humble as it is, I think we ought to be grateful that they even bother to come at Christmas and Easter. At least they are there twice a year. There are memorable and hopeful stories of both the birth and the resurrection of the person we call Jesus. It may not be ideal to have people only come twice a year, but at least it’s something. They may hear more in those two visits a year then some of us sitting in the pew would hear if we were there every Sunday. It could also be said that some of the Christmas and Easter Christians try to do Christlike things, consciously or not.


I think this Lazarus Saturday I’m going to be standing in front of the tomb of dear friends, at least mentally. There are so many that I wish Jesus would come and tell to come forth, even for just a day. I miss them just as Mary and Martha had yearned for their brother Lazarus. They got a second chance, something I won’t have. Those people beyond the veil will be in my heart, and my mind, and I so wish I could talk to them and tell them things I didn’t get to before they died. Luckily for Mary and Martha, they had a chance for a do-over.


In the busyness of Holy Week to come, save room in your heart for those who have gone to greater glory, those we love and miss. Think of Mary and Martha whose grief turned to joy, just as ours will when Jesus rises again on Easter morning.


Jesus is our second chance; let’s not waste it.


God bless.


Image: Resurrection of Lazarus, (c. 14th Century)   by Lippo Memmi (1295-1351).  Collection of Duomo di San Gimignano.  Found at Wikimedia Commons.


Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also estate manager and administrative assistant for Dominic, Phoebe, and Gandhi.


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