On Mary of Bethany

Hi All!

I was deeply blessed with an opportunity to speak at this morning's Holy Week service at College Church, the church in which I grew up. They're focusing this week on women in the life and ministry of Jesus, and so they asked me and several other women to each take a morning to deliver the message. 

College Church's Holy Week services are my favorite services of the year -- even though they start at 6:30 am to accommodate work schedules. Because I have a lot of friends who, like me, are not early risers -- and because I have many others who aren't in the area -- I thought I'd post the approximate text here. (I say approximate because I usually use bullet points, and I don't always listen when I talk.)

The passage for this morning was John 11:1-3, 17-20, 28-37 (although I find it easier to just read the passage straight through). 

Many thanks to Bill Hodgeman for inviting me to speak, to Bill and Aida Spencer for forming my understanding of Mary of Bethany, and to many others for insights I didn't even know shaped me. 

 My favorite thing I’ve learned in the last few years about Mary of Bethany is the context to the classic Mary and Martha story. (For my non-church-ey readers, the story can be found here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+10%3A38-42&version=NIV Don’t worry, it’s short.) I remember as a kid reading children’s book depictions of this story, with Mary sitting there, with this kind of sappy look on her face, chin in hands, as she listened to Jesus. One almost got the impression that Mary was the ADD one – that Martha had sent her off to grab an extra chair for the dinner table, and on her way Mary had walked by Jesus and said “ooh, stories!” and sat down right there. 

But in that culture, to sit at a rabbi’s feet was to be his disciple (for my non-church-ey readers, the relevant definition is a follower of/ student of/ someone being mentored by a religious teacher). And it was unheard of for a rabbi to have female disciples. In the first century, women were exempted from the legal requirement to study the Torah, and it was considered not only useless to teach a woman the Torah, but also borderline blasphemous. And so Martha is not just saying “Boy, I really wish I had a second pair of hands in the kitchen right now,” she’s saying, “I’m so sorry, Lord – what an embarrassment! Tell her to get back into the kitchen where she belongs.” And Jesus gently says to her, “Martha, Martha – she belongs right here. And you do too.”   Jesus defended Mary’s dignity and her right to be a disciple. He respected her and believed in her, probably more than she had ever expected to be believed in. That’s the relationship with which she enters this story.   

And now, (in her mind at least), Jesus utterly fails her. She sent him word that her brother was sick, and he didn’t even bother to come until it was too late. He had healed people before; he had even healed people from afar before – like the boy in John 4 whose father came to Jesus and was told “go home, your son will live”, and he did. So from Mary’s perspective, there was absolutely no reason why her brother should have had to die. Apparently, this man who had respected her – this man who had treated her like she was important to God – didn’t actually care all that much.   

When Jesus arrived in Bethany, she couldn’t even bring herself to go see him. It says, “Martha … went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.” When Martha sees Jesus, she gives him her question, but maintains her faith. She says, “If you had been here, he would not have died, but even now I know God will give you whatever you ask.” Essentially she was saying, “I don’t understand what’s going on here; I don’t understand how this could possibly turn out alright, but I still trust you.” Mary, on the other hand, doesn’t even want to be around him; it’s not until Martha comes back and (again) reminds her of her manners – “Honey, the Teacher is here, and he’s asking for you” – that she gets up and goes. And when she arrives, she doesn’t have it in her look him in the eye; instead, she throws herself on the ground, and all she has for him is accusation: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”   

How often do we do this? We were wooed into this faith thinking God was good, that He loves us, that He sent Jesus to save us and all that nice stuff. And then things come up that we can’t explain – things that we often feel we can’t even explain in the context of the good things we know about God. We start to feel like, “Well, this circumstance,” or “the way I’ve been hurt,” or “the way the Church has hurt people I love” (and isn’t it always harder when it’s someone you love, and not you – when it’s your beloved brother who has to suffer and die?) – “maybe this means that God isn’t who I thought He was. Maybe He’s not as good as I thought; maybe He doesn’t care all that much.” Unfortunately, a lot of times we’re not as honest about this as Mary was. A lot of times we pretend we’re maintaining our faith like Martha, and then live for years with this hidden disappointment in God.   

But look at Jesus’ response. Jesus weeps with her. He doesn’t rebuke her, even though she’s rebuked him. And then he raises Lazarus from the dead.   

The reality is that there was a lot more going on – God was doing a lot more – than people expected. Mary’s family would have been fine with it if Jesus had healed Lazarus from afar, if it had been this quiet little family miracle and that was all. But these people needed to see – Mary’s family needed to see, and the apostles [the 12 disciples he most closely mentored] needed to see, and the unbelieving people there needed to see – this shadow of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Ironically, this situation that caused Mary to doubt Jesus’ love not only symbolized his greatest act of love to come, but actually brought it about.   

Up until then, the threats against Jesus had not been organized. It had so far been things like “he said something we consider to be blasphemous, let’s pick up rocks and stone him here and now.” This, though, is when people began to plan. If you read farther in this chapter, it says that Jesus’ opponents saw how many people were putting their faith in him after watching him raise Lazarus, and it was in direct response to this that they began to plot to take his life.  

In healing Mary’s brother, Jesus sealed his own fate. And that is not the action of a person who “just doesn’t care all that much.” 

In the very next chapter, we see Mary’s response. And she gets it. 

Peter has been saying, “Come on, Jesus, think positive: God’s not going to let you die!” 

James and John have been saying, “so, when you overthrow Rome and become king, can we be on your cabinet – but like, in the good seats?” 

And Mary comes, and anoints Jesus with embalming spices.  

 I won’t get too far into this (there’s another woman preaching on that passage tomorrow – and for my blog readers, I won’t get into it now either because I have a TON of sheet music to finish before the summer), but Mary understood that the victory and goodness of God was going to come through sorrow and resurrection. She understood that God was not about just preventing tears – about doing little miracles and making everything nice and OK – but about crying our tears with us … and then resurrecting us from that sorrow, brokenness, and decay.   

So today I’d like to encourage you: be honest with God. Ask God to help you be honest. If you need to, ask friends or counselors to pray with you and help you be honest, because I know for me, there are times I think I’ve been honest and there’s still stuff there I didn’t realize was in there. He can take it. He saw everything you’d ever feel, think, say, and do, and He died for you anyway, so … trust me, He can take it. And He would rather -- He would much rather -- resurrect you, than have you live with years of small faith and quiet disappointment.   

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