Summary: A call to come out of the ways of death into the ways of life.
John 11:1-45 April 6, 2014
Rev. David J. Clark
The story begins with a request for Jesus to hurry to the aid of his deathly-ill friend, Lazarus. But Jesus delays. He sent messengers back to Lazarus’ home, saying “the sickness is not unto death.” Jesus made a diagnosis from afar; Lazarus will pull through. Nothing has prepared us in the gospel for the shocking news that when Jesus arrives it’s too late. Lazarus died. The funeral was over, the body buried in a sealed tomb. So much for the sickness not being “unto death.”
Four days after burial, Jesus is excoriated by Lazarus’ sisters. In separate encounters each sister poses the same accusation, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It is a raw, powerful, grief-filled accusation. Jesus you are our friend. Why didn’t you come right away? How could you be so insensitive, not to mention wrong about the sickness not being unto death? We are your friends—what was so blasted important that you couldn’t show up? You heal strangers and go to foreign lands to help people but fail to respond to your friends?
I think this is one of the most powerfully honest moments in scripture. At some point, I believe, every person who follows Jesus winds up having to go through what Mary and Martha went through. That’s why this passage is there. When life punches us in the nose, we ask, “Jesus, don’t you care?” Lord, why weren’t you paying attention? Lord, if you had been paying attention my brother would not have been killed by a drunk driver. Lord, if you had been here, my husband would not have suffered. Lord, if you had been here, my child would not suffer from an incurable disease, I would not have lost my job, I would not have been lied about, I would not have been betrayed by my friend, abandoned by my lover. Lord, why didn’t you stop this? I am glad the question is asked so pointedly to Jesus. It gives us permission to ask the question too. I think any healthy spirituality is allowed to ask the question. You have to be honest with God.
Notice that Jesus was so moved by the grief of Mary and Martha that he wept. We loved the memory verse as kids. Jesus wept. It’s the shortest but most profound verse in the Bible. Think about that. Here lies the answer to our questions in all its fullness. Jesus is not going to prevent every bad thing that can happen to us. It is a world where there is free will, illness, death, and evil. It’s a world where people do horrible things and people are hurt and not even being close to Jesus, being his best friend in the whole world, gives you a ticket out of suffering and pain.
But that doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t care. He weeps. Have you ever thought that when bad things happen; when you weep, Jesus weeps too? That he grieves for you in your pain. Maybe Jesus doesn’t like what has happened to you any more than you like it. Jesus wept.
It’s a highly mobile verse that fits in all sorts of circumstances. It could be on the fence of refugee camps housing more than 1 million Syrian refugees, or in Haiti the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Jesus wept. It could be embroidered on pillows in nursing homes, on billboards at skid row, on the doors of parlors where trafficked girls are violated. Jesus wept.
Jesus wept even though he knew full well about the power of resurrection. I know it is popular for folks to want to be stoic. Don’t cry at funerals, at my death, they will say. But when there is a loss, there is grief. The longer I am in pastoral ministry the more convinced I am that unresolved grief always comes out one way or another. And if you just go into denial about it, it usually comes out in mean, nasty, ugly ways later on. That is when people are most prone to getting swept up in an addiction or other behavior—they are just trying to do something to numb the pain. Jesus wept with Mary. There is someone you can turn to with your pain and sorrow, someone who understands. Jesus provides the compassion, resources, strength, and community of faith to help you get through the pain; he isn’t the source or cause of your misery.
Mary and Martha were playing the “what if” game. They both said the same thing. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Sometimes when bad things happen, people get sucked into constantly reliving the past. They hurt so badly they want to blame someone: If God cared, this wouldn’t have happened. If I hadn’t been so careless, so stupid, my life would have turned out differently. If old so and so hadn’t done me in; if I had only bought that stock when I had the chance, if only I had the chance to tell her how I really felt about her before she left or died. You ever meet someone stuck in the past, telling the same sad story over and over? You ever find a point where you just can’t forgive yourself, or someone else? Ever have a hard time moving on? Don’t be afraid; bring it to Jesus for help to move forward again.