Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
You know it’s going to be a bad day when you get pulled over and you haven’t even left your driveway. Yes, you know it going to be a bad day when your birthday cake collapses from the weight of the candles, or, when the blind date you had anxiously been awaiting turns out to be your older sister. Pastors can add to this list. You know it’s going to be a bad day when you finally remember the name of the parishioner you promised to visit- while reading the names in the obituaries of the morning newspaper. I wonder if that is how Jesus felt when he learned of his friend’s Lazarus’ death. It was going to be a bad day.
Today’s lesson is often referred to as the raising of Lazarus, but if St. John had merely to intended to portray the dramatic raising of Lazarus from the dead, he could have edited the passage down to a few verses. He certainly doesn’t seem to want Jesus or his readers to arrive at the tomb too early. Instead, the evangelist leaves us with a poignant and engaging portrait of how even Jesus’ friends, those closest to his heart, Mary and Martha, face the tragedy of sickness, loss and death. That is the counsel I would like to share with you today.
St. John begins by stating that this didn’t have to unfold into a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. After all, Jesus knew what was going to happen, and he had the power to prevent Lazarus’ death from occurring. Now, wouldn’t you expect those closest to Jesus to be entitled to his tender care? Why would he stay away two days longer after hearing that his friend Lazarus was near death?
No doubt there were skeptics who chided Jesus for not arriving in Bethany earlier. As he wept beside the tomb of his friend Lazarus, they whispered curiously, “See how much he loved him!” While others responded, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” After all, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, were not mere acquaintances. . They were loyal followers with but a little place in scripture, a brief mention here or there, and yet with such a large and secure place in Jesus’ heart.
Obviously, God doesn’t always prevent bad things from happening to good people. We know this just by reading the news. But sometimes it comes home to us in a way that is far too close for comfort- Especially when we experience our own personal grief and loss. Lazarus, after all, isn’t the only one who has needed God’s help.
“Lord, if you had been here.” Surprisingly, these words are as much as a lament as they are a confession of faith – Lord, if you had been here, my brother would have lived. Martha knew that Jesus had the power to heal, and she knew that Jesus could have prevented her brother’s death. But he was not there. Jesus, you could have done it, if you had been here.
That is, of course, the main critique of the Christian faith. It is the divine struggle of God’s action and intervention that baffles believers and non-believers alike. Bad things do happen to good people, and there doesn’t seem to be any way for God to prevent it from happening? Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Lord, if you had come two days earlier he would still be alive. Understandably, devout Christians try to explain these things away and defend God ,but their explanations often only make things worse. Beware of anyone who has a solid theology to dismiss evil and sorrow, and glibly cries, “God is good all the time.” Some might say to you that “God has a plan.” Really, I would say. God has a plan that involves sickness, tragic accidents, and painful losses. That sounds pretty cruel and pathetic. Others might state, that “Everything happens for a reason.” And they say something to you trite or trivial, “God wanted another angel in heaven.” Truly? Is God so selfish that he’ll cause all kinds of pain and suffering in this world just so he can have an angel by his side?
The problem with pain, suffering and tragedy is that it defies all that we think we know about God – that God has the power to heal and create, and that God is all-loving and merciful. And yet, there are times when God’s power and love simply fail to come together. At times we experience God’s love, and others times we experience God’s power. But then there are those random, painful occurrences when we don’t feel either of these. We do not feel his power nor his love- just his absence. And our voices echo poor Martha’s, “Lord, if you had been here.”
But my friends, watch and listen to Jesus closely. Christ sees the grief that Mary and Martha are both suffering. He doesn’t criticize them or argue away their sorrow. Instead, he joins them in weeping. And then, defying all the laws of nature, he brings Lazarus back to life. You see, as wonderful as the miracle is, the healing is not simply about Lazarus. Certainly, Jesus loves Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, and I believe that he was truly moved to tears by his love for them, yet in Holy Scripture, we should remind ourselves that miracles tell us about two things: One- who Jesus is, and two, what we can expect of his future promises. The stories in scripture are not meant to generate a faith and trust in miracles, but rather they are to help us deepen our faith in Christ. Miracles are about the one who heals and reaches out in love and restores the dead to life.
The miracle of the raising of Lazarus, and the healing of Mary and Martha teaches us that God meets us where we are in our lives and provides the companionship, life, and hope needed for us now. Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.” That is your promise as well. God is there all along, in the suffering, in the crying and in the dying along with you. That is the nature of God’s love that the miracle of Lazarus reveals. We trust in a God who is with you and will not leave you, a God who empties himself in love for you, a God who weeps and suffers and dies with you, promising that even when you weep and suffer and die, you are never alone.
Yes, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” This is our Lord’s promise, to you and me as well. Even on your worst, bad days, when all the world seems to be crashing down around you, God will give you new life again. Even when sin and evil have overtaken you, God will breathe a new spirit into your life again. Even though your dreams and hopes have been shattered, Jesus will enter your life bringing you new dreams and hopes again.
My friends, be patient with God. Waiting for Jesus is the lesson we learn from Mary and Martha. Even though all hope was lost, and Lazarus had died, they still waited; for what, they did not know. And yet it was in the midst of this waiting that God entered. God’s timing is different than ours. Yes, even when all seems lost, hold on for a while longer and allow God to act on your heart in his own good time. That is the truth that we glimpse even more clearly at the hour of Jesus’ own death, on that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day we call Good Friday. Be patient with God. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” Watch Jesus and wait. For those who place their trust in God- Jesus’ resurrection at Easter and the promise of life everlasting is not a surprise, but it is a promise fulfilled. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.