“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These are powerful words from our gospel lesson. The first time we hear them, they are spoken by Martha as she greets Jesus after the death of her brother, Lazarus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Later, these words are repeated by her sister, Mary: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Behind this accusation lies a question many people ask when they face the death of a loved one or other unspeakable tragedy: “Jesus, where are you? Where are you? I’m suffering. Where are you? I’m afraid. I feel so alone. I can’t sense your presence in my life. You promised you would be with me always, but it feels like you are nowhere to be found.”
Sometimes it’s hard to see Jesus when we are overwhelmed by sorrow. Sometimes it’s hard to feel his presence when emotions like grief and anger have built high walls around our hearts. Yet, the Scriptures tell us that he is there: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We know this in our heads, but our hearts tell a different story!
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s true, Martha follows up this lament by saying “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” But to say this is a statement of faith negates what she is feeling in the words which precede it. Martha is looking for comfort. She needed Jesus to be there for her and he wasn’t. Pure and simple. If he had arrived a few days earlier, healing might have been a possibility. She had seen him do it before. Certainly he could do it again.
But now, four days have passed since her brother was placed in his tomb. Jews believed that the soul left the body after three days. So Lazarus is really dead. Therefore, I don’t see Martha’s words as a statement of faith. I see them as a cry of desperation because, in her heart, she thinks it’s too late. The time for Jesus to make things better is over and done with. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
There’s a scene in the movie The Shack that speaks strongly to Martha’s accusation. Mack, the main character, wonders where God was when his daughter was brutally murdered. In one of my favorite scenes in the movie, God, who is played by Octavia Spencer, is sitting on the front porch, resting comfortably in a chair. She has sunglasses on. Her eyes are closed. And she’s enjoying the beauty of the day. Mack sees God resting on the porch and assumes the worst. He sarcastically says, “What’s this? God has time to catch a few rays? Don’t you have something better to do this afternoon?” Without skipping a beat, God says, “Mack, you have no idea what I’m doing right now.”
I see Jesus saying the same thing to Martha and Mary who question why it took so long for Jesus to arrive. I see Jesus saying the same thing to those of us who feel alone in our grief and suffering. He leans back in his deck chair, looks at us above the rim of his sunglasses, and says, “Beloved children of God, you have no idea what I’m doing right now.”
You see, we can discuss the merits of why Jesus decided to wait two days before he went to Bethany. We can accuse him of being cruel for allowing Lazarus to die so that he could perform a miracle. We can give up hope, thinking that the time for Jesus to make things better is over and done with. When all our weeping, wailing and lamentation has brought us to the point of exhaustion, Jesus tells us “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.”
“I AM the light of the world, those who follow me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. I AM the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, and I lay down my life for the sheep. I AM the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Beloved children of God, you have no idea what I’m doing right now!”
The beauty of the story of the raising of Lazarus is that it shows us, once again in John’s gospel, what grace upon grace looks like. If we have any doubt where Jesus is in the midst of our suffering, the story of Lazarus answers the question. He is telling Martha that resurrection and new life are not just something to be experienced on the last day, when we all get to heaven. Resurrection is happening in our lives right here and right now. He is the one who becomes greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved, when he sees us suffering and in distress. He cries with us as we mourn all the dead places that exist in our lives, be they literal or spiritual. He calls us again and again to come out of the tombs which have prevented us from experiencing life in all of its abundance. He unbinds us, and frees us from everything that prevents us from moving forward in life.
This, friends in Christ, this is what grace upon grace looks like. If we read a little further into the twelfth chapter of John, we get yet another story of grace upon grace in the lives of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. It’s six days before Passover. Everyone is gathered at the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. It’s the night before Jesus would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, with palm branches waving, and shouts of “Hosanna” from the gathered crowd. It’s an evening that is filled with love and laughter as old friends gather for good food and good conversation.
And on this special night, Martha is serving dinner, of course! Because, you know, that’s what Martha does! Lazarus is reclining at the table with Jesus. I imagine him resting against his shoulder. Mary is anointing the feet of Jesus with a costly perfume of pure nard. The house is filled with its sweet fragrance. Judas, is a little hot and bothered by the scene, saying that Mary’s gift is a waste of money. But Jesus comes to Mary’s defense, saying, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
This beautiful scene reminds us that new life can come from death, relationships can be mended, and broken hearts can be restored. This is how grace upon grace works in our lives. It speaks to a truth we don’t even have to believe: Jesus is always working in our lives to bring about resurrection and new life. If there is any encouragement we can take from our gospel lesson, this is it. In spite of our fear, our doubt, our anger, our pain and our snap judgments about Jesus, he continues to be there for us, time and time again; today, tomorrow and always. “Beloved children of God,” he says to us, “You have no idea what I’m doing right now.”
As I bring my thoughts to a close, I’d like to leave you with a quote from the book version of the Shack. This is God who is speaking to Mack, once again: “Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”
Friends in Christ, I know some of you are struggling with really difficult problems right now. Others are grieving the loss of loved ones and it feels like its difficult to move forward. May the story of Lazarus remind us that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is constantly working in our midst to set us free from whatever entombs or binds us. AMEN.
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck