Summary: As we stand like Martha in the road, struggling with the messes, pain, grief, and thoughts of "if only..." Christ meets us, he weeps with us, and he shows us a new way of life and hope.
A few years ago when I was living in Washington, DC, and working part-time at a church in Alexandria, Virginia, I did a ride-along with an Alexandria police officer on an early morning shift one Saturday. Most of the morning was uneventful. We drove through the parking lots at the cheap hotels while he ran license plate numbers looking for stolen or missing vehicles. We did the same thing sitting near a busy traffic light in North Alexandria, just across the river from DC. We went to a busy back road, where the cop sat with his radar gun, checking for speeders coming around an especially tight corner. But soon after lunch, things changed. As we sat at that busy corner with the radar gun, a call came through that a baby in an apartment complex just across the street was not breathing. The cop rushed me back into the car, and we drove into the complex. He invited me to follow him as we rushed up the stairs to a second floor apartment. As we made our way up, we passed the paramedics on their way down, a baby in their arms.
We went into the apartment and found stunned, confused children and a hysteric father. The mother had gone to work early in the morning, the father had woken up, fed the baby a bottle of formula, then he put the baby in his seat next to the couch as he sat himself down on the couch to watch cartoons with the children. The father fell asleep, and when we woke up, he discovered the baby was not responsive, and not breathing.
We waited a long time with the family as the police officer tried to find out what had happened and I tried to keep the children distracted. After a while, the officer got a call over the radio -- the baby had not made it. At that point, he sent me away with another cop for the remainder of the shift, while he finished up the questioning and investigation that needed to be done at the apartment. I found out when I got back to the police station that the doctors believed the baby had somehow choked on the formula, which had probably been too thick. I don't think I have to tell you how sad I was; and I wouldn't be telling you this story if it didn't still haunt me today. And there are so many questions: we wonder why? How could this have happened? Why would a little baby die? Perhaps the situations are a bit different, but at times we all ask such questions.
And then we begin to think: "If only..." If only the formula hadn't been mixed too thick. If only the father hadn't fallen asleep. If only the baby had somehow cried when it was in distress. If only the other children had noticed that something wasn't right.
When was the last time you said, "If only..." If only he hadn't stepped out in front of that car...If only she had worked a bit harder and not failed the exam...If only a different politician had been elected last time round...If only we hadn't decided to go on vacation that very week...And whatever it is, we then start thinking to ourselves, "If only the clock could be turned back." That, of course, is a wistful dream. It's a kind of nostalgia, not for the past as it was, but for the present that could have been, if only the past had just been a little different.
Yet, that is precisely what is on the minds of Lazarus' family. All that and more is here in Martha's "if only" to Jesus as he arrives in Bethany. "'Lord,' Martha said to Jesus, 'if you had been here, my brother would not have died.'" She knows that if Jesus had been there he would have cured Lazarus. And she probably knows, too, that it had taken Jesus at least two days longer to get there than she had hoped. Lazarus has already been dead for a few days, but perhaps...he might just have made it...if only...
But Jesus' reply to Martha invites her to a different sort of thought, a different sort of "if only." Instead of dwelling on the past and dreaming about what might have been, Jesus invites Martha to look into the future. Martha does that, she knows that her brother will be raised in the resurrection on the last day. But now Jesus asks her to imagine that this future is suddenly brought forward into the present.
Martha, like other Jews of her time, believed that there was to be some future resurrection. They believed that the heavens and the earth would be made new, in which God would enhance all the beauty of the present world and abolish all the pain, ugliness, and grief. Within that new world, they believed, all God's people from ancient times to present would be given new bodies, to share and relish this resurrection life in the new creation.