This Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 11:1-45) presents preachers with a number of challenges. First of all, what sermon should come from such a long and multifaceted reading? The first lesson of preaching I was ever taught was to preach only one sermon—not two or three or four at the same time. Cut it down. Focus the message. But how? Another problem is how long to preach. A lesson this long—the third in a row—is deep and rich and deserves some exposition, but congregations have a harder and harder time sitting still for that long. This reading is 847 words long. If I read that at the same pace I preach, it would take me 6 minutes just to read the gospel. Then you’re going to sit and listen to me preach for another 10-15? Good luck, preacher.
More pressing in my mind, however, is the issue of fate…of purpose…of plan…of providence…of predestination. My friend Steve Pankey wrote about this on Monday. It’s a great post and has made me think of this passage and my faith and my hope and my understanding of who God is and how the world works and what I’m supposed to do about it. You can see my comments to that post and the back-and-forth he and I had about it at the bottom of the post. As I see it, we find ourselves facing the same question—as do so many people of faith: how can we believe that God is in control of our lives if so many things that happen seem antithetical to the God we know?
In Sunday’s lesson, Jesus tells the disciples of Lazarus’ soon-to-be-fatal illness, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Similarly, in last week’s reading (John 9:1-41), Jesus said, “[This man] was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.” Both statements—and plenty of others in the Old and New Testaments—suggest that terrible things (disability, disease, death, etc.) are part of God’s plan. How are we supposed to make sense of that? Is the pulpit the right time to tackle this issue? Maybe—as long as the preacher doesn’t say that she or he has all the answers. That would be disastrous. Instead, if this is the theological nut that the preacher is desperate to crack (good thing I’m not preaching?), I’d say start with 11:35--“Jesus wept.”
Think about this for a minute: the Son of God, with all the power that the Almighty possesses, declares boldly that his friend’s illness does not lead to death but instead to his and his father’s glorification, knows that the result would be resurrection, and still comes to the tomb and weeps. He who said, “This does not lead to death,” still comes and weeps. He who has the power to raise his friend is still overcome with grief. Even though he is a full and clear participant in the divine plan, Jesus still encounters this moment as one of tragedy and pain and loss. Are these two states of being—these two mindsets—not incongruent? Can Jesus himself be confident and hopeful and foreknowing and still mourn his friend’s death? Absolutely. And so should we.
Is this part of God’s plan? Yes. Does that soften the pain? Perhaps but not necessarily. Is pain and grief still appropriate? Clearly. But is despair? No. That’s where the line is drawn. This gospel lesson is a proclamation of mature faith. It is the antidote to cheap, heartless preaching in the face of death and disaster. Even Jesus weeps, and we should, too. It is also the antidote to a theology based in human emotion rather than divine revelation. We do not divorce our belief in God’s providence from our experience of the world simply because we don’t like the way the world is going. Jesus didn’t like it either, but he still maintained his grip on God’s unfolding plan. His statement of faith—“this leads to glory”—isn’t cheap or ignorant of the loss. He embraces both the pain of death and the hope of glory. And we should, too.
Do we believe that even something terrible is part of God’s plan? Yes, I think we do. But does that mean that we understand it? No, absolutely not. Do we declare how something we don’t understand fits into God’s plan? No, absolutely not. Are we supposed to put on a happy face and pretend that everything is ok? No, absolutely not. But should still put our faith in God’s promise to bring everything to a holy completion even though we don’t understand how it’s working? Yes, I think that’s what mature faith is.
We believe that God will make everything right. We believe that brokenness will be restored. How? When? We don’t know. But we can’t let go of our belief that God has a plan and that he is in control. He is not asleep at the wheel. He is not absent from our disasters. He is not up in heaven weeping at a world he has no control over. He is at the tomb of his friend, weeping at the loss of a man he loved yet confident that it will lead to God’s glory.