Our text today comes to us in the middle of the Lenten season. As we are waist-deep in the chaotic waters, knowing that Good Friday is looming and praying that Easter may come, our text calls us to reflect on the nature of God in the midst of great tragedy. The raising of Lazarus is the “seventh sign” in the gospel of John, and many of us read the story to simply say, “ooh, ahhh, Jesus raises someone from the dead”. But we are mindful that Jesus never does miracles for their own sake, but to show us what God is like. And we are mindful that this story does not simply tell us of a dead man rising, but is a long, 45 verse human story of grief, loss and suffering. And this, the last sign of Jesus, reveals to us once more the God who spans the breadth of our scriptures from the beginning and points us toward the surprising, new ending that none of us expected. This story is not simply about Jesus who raised a dead man once. This is a parable of how a God like ours responds to the death that seemingly overwhelms our human experience
The story begins telling us how much Jesus loves the family of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. We are invited, then, to read this story thinking about how Jesus responds toward those whom he loves. So how does Jesus take care of the people he loves the most? It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a little extra-special treatment for people that are really close to Jesus. When my friends show up to the coffee shop I work at, I usually swing them a little ten to twenty percent discount, because that’s what friends do. So when Jesus doesn’t do that, right after we are told just how much Jesus loved this family and should totally give them a free splash of soy milk in their Americano… we are caught off guard. We are told as children to believe we are people who Jesus loves, and Jesus loves the people in the story – we wait in anticipation to see how Jesus treats them, and us.
Jesus shows up late; and if we’re honest, this experience is true for us today as it was for them. And it forces us to reflect on a central question to the human experience: where is God in our time of need? This is the hardest portion of our text to interpret, and causes a huge amount of disagreement. Why does Jesus wait for two days? He says, “This illness is not to death, but for the glory of God.” But what does that even mean?? Some are more comfortable with that than others, talking about God’s timing versus our timing, and others think that Jesus is toying around on purpose, because bringing someone back to life is a better miracle than healing someone who is sick. Some of us are not very comfortable with that – why can’t God’s timing include actually caring about how I feel and the pain I’m in right now? Why would God risk losing their faith altogether just to make a point? That God seems really manipulative, and rather cold-hearted!
The question that we’re asking turns out not to be “Why did Jesus delay in this story?”, but actually, “Why does God always delay in my life?” This question is ancient, and yet I would suspect that a good percentage of us asked it this very week in some form or fashion.
The story forces the question, but neglects to answer. In fact, the reason that this question remains so hotly debated is that it is never definitively answered. Some texts like Job meditate on it and dare to dive in… today’s text simply shows it. It’s honest. It’s brutal. It tells us that Jesus delays, even for those he loves. Where is God in our time of need? It lives within the question. And then it tells us the rest of the story.
When Jesus does arrive, Martha and Mary each meet him with pain in their voices –a profoundly raw expression of faith as old as our oldest scriptures. Martha comes first to meet Jesus, while Mary remains grieving at home. Eventually, Mary comes to meet Jesus too. Both of them have words for Jesus, the same words we had a moment ago. “Where were you? If only you had been here!” Mary is so hurt that it takes her a while to work up the courage to face him. I can relate to this as a non-confrontational person – when I’m mad at someone, I tend to avoid them for a while. In my head, I mastermind this grand confrontation where I give a speech that belongs at the end of a masterpiece courtroom drama, and the person I’m accusing weeps at their shame and begs for my mercy… but I secretly know that when I actually see them I’ll just cry and babble some nonsense.
But we are too quick to judge these two women. And this comes from a conviction that I don’t think is actually true or biblical. Many preachers I’ve heard condemn these women for having weak faith, or compare and contrast Martha and Mary because Mary doesn’t come around till later and has less of a profound statement about who Jesus is. But I think these preachers believed something that is not true and I’m afraid many of us believe it too. I’m afraid that too many of us believe that it’s not okay to be upset at God.
A few years back I saw a note on Facebook was trending from Kay Warren, the wife of famous Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren. For those of you who aren’t familiar with their story, their son unexpectedly committed suicide about a year prior to this Facebook note. Kay writes about what it is like to experience that loss, but more about how hurt she was by many well meaning Christians who expected her to “move on” faster. I’d like to read a small portion of it:
As the one-year anniversary of Matthew’s death approaches, I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to “move on.” But for most, life never stopped – their world didn’t grind to a horrific, catastrophic halt on April 5, 2013. In fact, their lives have kept moving steadily forward with tasks, routines, work, kids, leisure, plans, dreams, goals etc. LIFE GOES ON. And some of them are ready for us to go on too. They want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us – when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013 will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again. There is a new “normal.” April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time….maybe forever. Because these comments from well-meaning folks wounded me so deeply, I doubted myself and thought perhaps I really am not grieving “well” (whatever that means). [People ask] “How are you”. This question is almost impossible to answer. If you’re a stranger, it’s none of your business. If you’re a casual acquaintance, it’s excruciating to try to answer honestly, and you leave the sufferer unsure whether to lie to you (I’m ok) to end the conversation or if they should try to haltingly tell you that their right arm was cut off and they don’t know how to go on without it. If you’re a close friend, try telling them instead, “You don’t have to say anything at all; I’m with you in this.”
How many of us can identify? That someone has used faith, implicitly or explicitly, to shame those who feel the deepest hurts of human existence? And yet throughout Scripture, the greatest heroes and heroines of faith are those who cried out to God in all their rawness and honesty and demanded an answer. From Abraham to Moses, Hannah, David, Naomi, the Psalmists and the Prophets and the writers of Ecclesiastes and Lamentations! The Bible represents a rich, illustrious tradition of saying exactly how you feel to God, even directed toward God, and receiving an answer. When we cry out to God in the rawness of our emotion, like Mary and Martha, it does not come from a lack of faith – rather, it is the deepest kind of faith that can feel the entire weight of human suffering and still look toward God for something, anything, in response.
Because that same tradition reveals a God deeply moved by our cries – while “Jesus wept” may be the shortest verse in the Bible, the truth of it pervades every page – Our God is a God who weeps for broken humanity. It could even be argued, biblically, that God’s action on our behalf is influenced by the very cries we just spoke of. The foundational act of God in the story of Israel, the Exodus, began when, as it tells us in chapter 1:
The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
Throughout the Old Testament, God is described as being saddened, grieved, moved to pity, angry, restless, jealous… The God we claim is not the ambivalent, disinterested, uninvolved god of Greek philosophy or deism. Our God has fire, personality, zeal, and the deepest level of interest in our sorrow and joy! What’s interesting is that the different words used to describe Jesus’ emotions in this passage include anger, but also compassion. Jesus experiences a wide range of emotions in this short time, and scholars can’t agree about whom Jesus is angry at. But when Jesus weeps, it is at the brokenness of humanity; because of sin, because of grief, because of death and suffering… Jesus weeps because he is sad. His anger, whatever toward, gives way to compassion. As the Old Testament recounts over and over, God is slow to anger, but abounding in steadfast love.
I lived in Oklahoma City for four years while I was doing my undergrad. Oklahoma City, besides having a basketball team, is famous only for its tragedy. The Oklahoma City bombing, prior to 9/11, was the largest act of terrorism in U.S. History. The city wears the scars of the attack to this day, and recounts the stories of fear and disbelief from that chaotic day. Just to the east of the memorial stands this statue (pictured above).
The statue simply reads, “And Jesus wept”, quoting our passage today. The Jesus depicted in the statue looks away from the site of the attack weeping. It stands as a beautiful and tragic reminder of a God who feels our deepest pain and weeps at our brokenness. But it’s still not the end of the story.
Finally, we are brought to the explosive, brilliant conclusion that the God who seems to arrive too late, the God who hears our cries and weeps with us, is not only a friend with an ear to listen, but is also the Lord over life and death. Because this is true, every story can have a surprise ending. See, the Jews that saw Jesus weeping had two responses. The first was a nice, emotional response: “See how he loved him!” But then the hard questions came back: “Couldn’t this man who heals blind people have stopped him from dying?” Ultimately, a God who is compassionate and sympathetic is a deeply moving, helpful sentiment, but if that God has no power to right the wrongs in our world… what’s the point? God would be no more useful than a good friend during a hard time.
But God is the giver and sustainer of life, the Creator of all that is. And the wild, creative force behind everything that can be! And Jesus makes it clear in his prayer that he is not simply a human performing a miracle, but the Son of God unleashing the full power of this God from Genesis to Revelation. This is not a miracle to look at and say “ooh, ahhh, yay Jesus” like turning water into wine or walking on water. To this brilliant, unexpected conclusion, we can only say, “Behold the Lord, the giver of life!”
Jesus commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and he does! It’s enough to say Mary and Martha did not expect this; on an obvious level they did not anticipate someone who had died coming back to life. But even on a theological level, they understood that resurrection was supposed to happen at the end of time. But Jesus throughout the gospels is saying that everything God is… it’s happening in your midst. “I am the resurrection and the life!” You don’t have to wait until death or until the end of times to experience Resurrection. Resurrection begins now, and continues on. Jesus redefines resurrection to mean deep life now, and long life for tomorrow. And he will do it again on Easter Sunday.
This means that all of the ways in which we experience pain and death in this life have the possibility of a surprise ending. Our God experiences it as deeply as we do, and can partner with us to change the course. Whether it is a broken relationship, a cycle of violence, a city marred by a tragedy, addiction that can’t be broken… so many of our realities seem predetermined, like the ending has already been written. But in Christ, the end of the story can always be a surprise. In this story, and especially on Easter, we see God overcome the literal, final death that pervades our experience and charges our metaphors of pain with meaning. If God can overcome that, God can do anything for those whom God loves.
Almost to Easter, but knowing Good Friday comes first, we pause to reflect on the rich tradition of the Old Testament brought to the forefront by our text today. Jesus wants to remind us what God is like in our darkest times. Though absence and distance are so often the words we use to describe where God is in our darkness, we draw on the words of our mothers and fathers of faith who cried out to God and God responded, because God simply can’t help but feel experience our pain alongside us. And when God responds, things happen that we don’t expect, but that always bring new life, new beginnings, and surprise endings. May we be encouraged to always turn to the God of all Life in the face of death, whether near or far, in all honesty and humility, and may God finally come to us and make all things new. Amen.