Jesus Holds the Story
Updated: Apr 8
New artwork collage based on John 11 titled - Show Me Your Glory (prints available)
I recently led a retreat on John 11, the account of Lazarus' death and resurrection. The story began with sickness and suffering, "Now, a man named Lazarus was sick." The first word is "now." At the beginning of each retreat I ask the question, "How do you come?" I invite participants to consider, "What are your current circumstances and what is the state of heart... now?"
Friend, what is your reality today? This Good Friday, when we we remember Jesus' death on our behalf, where are you in your story? We give our attention to God from a particular present moment.
In the weeks preceding retreat, I focused upon and sank into the layers of the story. I had been experimenting with collage as an art form, so as a way of engaging John 11 I set up with passages of Scripture, images, markers, paint, and ModPodge to create a collage that would invite the viewer to enter the story. Reading the passage and reflecting, I noticed the movements of the text and looked at Jesus. The image began to emerge.
Layering the fragments of the story, I began with a sketch of the two women sending word to Jesus. This act of faith was their response to their current reality and need, Lazarus' illness. What is my need? Is this an invitation for me to keep sending word, to keep praying, to keep engaging with Jesus in this present moment? Have I sent word to Jesus?
The sisters are asking Jesus to behold their story; they ask him to see their hardship. After all, he had healed and ministered to so many, so many that did not follow him as they did. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. But when Jesus heard the news regarding Lazarus' illness... he did not respond, he did not act, he did not go to his friends. Jesus delayed. But Jesus had a perspective no-one else had. He understood God's plan and purposes, and he knew the end of the story.
Whereas I know the past of my story, and I am in the middle of my present experience, there is much that is uncertain, because I do not know the future. Jesus informed his disciples that Lazarus' suffering was for God's glory, for Jesus to be glorified... and so the disciples would believe. As this crisis of illness became a tragic loss, the weight of who Jesus truly was, and is, would be displayed... it would provide kingdom impact.
In order to collage the story, I tore the passage into pieces and placed them on the canvas. I arranged the fragments of text, images and words, moving them around the canvas... and paying attention. I drew different images of Mary and Martha: together they sent word to Jesus... but their responses to and experiences of Jesus when they finally saw him were different. How could I depict the delay... the uncertain time of waiting... and then loss? When Jesus arrived, Martha was direct in her grief, analyzing what had taken place, stating the reality of his absence and her loss, and the truth of who Jesus is. Mary was immersed in feeling her grief.
As I began to lay out the collage and place the images, Jesus was the center, the pivot point, the One who held the story. Jesus holds our stories as well. The collage is integrated and unified visually by the image of the great Lion of Judah, the guard watching over the story and the anchor of all reality. In Jesus all things hold together (Colossians 1:17).
The Lion's gaze is fixed on those He loves. He holds the sacred text, the plot of this story. Lazarus, the male figure, surrendered and bowed down in the darkness, is held by God as he awaits the movement of God. There are seasons in our own lives where we are sidelined, bowed down by suffering, or diminished in traumatic and painful circumstances. We wait for God to speak or act, or even just let us know we are still loved this side of heaven. Often we experience the silence of God or the delay of God's hand and we wonder, as I suspect Mary and Martha did, does God truly love us and does our pain really matter? Will our suffering have meaning?
Jesus did go to Bethany despite the risk to his own life, but the danger was not the reason for his delay. Even still, it seemed that he was too late. The Savior has disappointed his loyal and loved friends. How often are we disheartened by the unfolding of the story, of our story? But we cannot interpret the story until God reveals His purposes, and we cannot know the end of the story until we reach the end.
Martha went to Jesus as soon as she heard he had come. Her first words spoke of her faith in him and his power... and she spoke of her loss. She was confident in Jesus' intimate relationship with the Father, but her brother was now dead. The tension is tangible, and yet she still turned to him and engaged. Can you and I keep turning to Jesus in our pain and uncertainty... and in our loss. She proclaimed her faith in Jesus, as the promised Messiah. But Jesus is more than she could ever grasp. He is more than a friend, more than a healer. Jesus is resurrection and life.
As Jesus approached his own death, the disciples would need to know this more than ever. It would have been a good gift if Jesus had healed Lazarus of illness. But Jesus had healed many. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were trusted with increased suffering that would lead to greater glory for God... and a deeper experience and proclamation of who Jesus is.
Jesus asked for Mary. Mary responded immediately when called. And once again, Mary was found at the feet of Jesus. Her faith and her loss were exclaimed as well... and Mary offered her tears. Her tears moved Jesus' heart deeply. Sometimes the greatest offering I have to give God is entrusting to him my grief and pain.
Jesus asked to be taken to the tomb. Martha, Mary, the disciples, and those grieving with them led Jesus to the tomb that had been sealed for four days. And Jesus wept.
There is mystery in Jesus' tears. The Creator of the universe expressed raw emotion before a tomb, the reality and symbol of all that had gone wrong as a result of our sin. Jesus knew that he approached his own brutal death that would unlock redemption for all humanity. And I wonder if his tears also held grief for all those who would reject the life that could be found in him through his sacrifice. We have all rejected him once, born independent of God and choosing self-sufficiency over surrender, and we find ourselves separated from God's love by our own choice. But some will reject the rescue Jesus accomplishes at the cross. What heartache for the Triune God who created humanity and then offered redemption by his own hand and his own sacrifice... to be rejected again.
Jesus commanded Lazarus to live. Death cannot hold the one Jesus calls forth. And some believed. Yet even here, some resisted this beautiful gift of restored life and plotted against Jesus. I suspect the disciples would need this memory as they approached the coming days of opposition, turmoil, and grief.
And as John 11 moves into chapter 12, we see Jesus communing with his friends again. Martha is tending with hospitality, Lazarus is present with the one who loves him, and Mary, Mary is at Jesus' feet again. I suspect that Mary's listening heart perceived more than many. Jesus seemed to allude to this. Does she understand what he has said about coming to die? Perhaps. She has offered Jesus her listening, she has offered Jesus her tears and her grief, and NOW she offers her worship.
There are few places where Jesus, the One who serves, teaches, gives, ministers, and loves, seems to receive so fully. May we, may I, continue to offer Jesus our whole hearts... and may we worship. The final image in the collage is the jar of oil poured out in honor and care of Jesus. How can I continue to offer my heart, my tears, my willingness, my perseverance in hardship to Jesus as an offering?