Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Hope In Deepest Grief

I've always struggled with John 11:32-44. When Jesus arrives in Bethany too late--after Lazarus had died--Mary comes to him, kneels at his feet, and exclaims, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." It's an echo of what her sister had already exclaimed a few verses earlier. That one, repeated sentence encapsulates the challenge of believing in an all-powerful God. If God had been here...if God had intervened...if God had chosen, it didn't have to be this way. Plane crash. Cancer. Starvation. Tsunami. War. "God, if you had been here, this would not have happened," we say in our prayers as our faith in God's love collides with our belief in God's power. Because we believe in God, we believe that it didn't have to be this way.

I know in my mind that John didn't recall the story this way in order to challenge my very western understanding of God's omnipotence. The point, of course, is indeed that it doesn't have to be this way. By the end of the story, Jesus calls his friend out of the tomb. As he shows us who Jesus, the Son of God, really is, John uses the back-from-the-dead miracle to reveal that in Jesus God's power is unlimited. Healing a sick man is one thing--"Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died"--but bringing one back from the dead is another thing entirely. As John recalls for us, Jesus was "glad that [he] was not there [in time] so that you may believe." Another miraculous healing wouldn't prove the point that Jesus could bring life to the dead. We needed a really, actually dead body to get that truth across.

Still, there's an instrumentalism to this miracle that leaves me uncomfortable. That discomfort comes to me most profoundly when a family chooses John 11 as the gospel lesson for their loved one's burial. That lesson (John 11:21-27) backs up a little bit in order to omit the actual miracle of the resuscitation of Lazarus, but we hear Martha say, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died, yet even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of God." As I climb into the pulpit to preach, I find myself wondering, "If Jesus had been at the bedside instead of me, instead of doctors, instead of nurses, would we be here today?" Even though the reading stops short of the miracle, Martha's words beg for it, calling it out of our collective memory. As I preach about our hope in the promised resurrection on the last day, I wonder to myself, "Do we really have to wait? Couldn't Jesus give this loved one back to her family even four days after her death?"

Typically, I respond to this unhelpful wondering by appealing to Jesus' grief. As I think about this passage and as I preach on it at funerals, I focus on the magnitude of Jesus' loss. He, too, knew what it meant to lose a friend. Even if he could have saved Lazarus if he had gotten there earlier, even if he did know what would happen when he called him out, still Jesus knew the fullness of that loss. We, too, know that loss even though we, too, will one day be reunited with our loved one. There is comfort in knowing that the Son of God also experienced that suffering. We are not alone in that loss. God is with us in our grief.

This time, as I read John 11, something different sticks out to me. When Jesus asks them to roll away the stone and Martha responds, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days," I find myself wondering why Martha would have reacted that way. What did the woman who proclaimed, "Even know I know that God will give you whatever you ask of God," think Jesus was doing? I wonder whether she saw it as a yet another expression of grief. Jesus couldn't get there in time. He wanted to see the body of his friend. Even though he had been dead for four days and the stench would be unbearable, Jesus needed to have a moment with his friend. I've been with people whose grief has manifested itself like that--not necessarily let's get shovels and dig up the casket but just as unreconciled and incomplete. People know that their loved one will walk through the door any minute. People swear that they hear their dead child's voice calling from the other side of the house. Martha tries to comfort Jesus, who would do the unthinkable in order to see his beloved friend again, but Jesus shows us the only way to find comfort.

No, we don't get our loved ones back in this life. No, Jesus isn't the physician attending our loved one. No, he won't come to our funeral and order that the casket be opened in order to call the dead back to life. But he weeps with us in the front row. And he, like us, knows that we cannot find comfort until we join those who have gone before us in the presence of our Creator. And that gives us hope--real hope, lasting hope.

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