Lord, If You Had Been Here...
A large bowl of Red delicious apples was placed at the front of the cafeteria line at a local college. I’ll let you guess which one. The note attached read, “Take only one please, God is watching.” At the far end of the line sat a tray of peanut butter cookies. On this tray someone had left another note that said, “ Take all you want, God is watching the apples” (Tom Allen, p463 “1001 Quotes…” Rowell).
I appreciate both of these sentiments because I think life, with all its strange twists and turns, is complicated. There are times when we are sure God is watching and times when we are equally sure that God is not. I am sure that every person in this room could tell us about a time in your life when you felt that God was looking out for you and manipulating events just enough to change your life for the better: a moment where you were unusually delayed or just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Am I right? Yeah.
Maybe it was that moment when you met your partner or landed your first job or that time you narrowly avoided disaster. But everybody has a story.
And I could fill plenty of time right now with more dramatic accounts of divine intervention, those Christian equivalents of urban legends. You know, variations on that story where every member of the choir is mysteriously late for rehearsal so no one gets hurt when the boiler beneath the choir loft explodes at 9:15 on a Sunday morning.
Or the one where the church van carrying the entire youth group goes off the side of the road and everyone is okay because the trees create an improbable but effective net. Had they gone off the road ten feet earlier, well, God only knows what might have happened.
Near misses, unexpected reversals, the Virgin Mary appearing on your grilled cheese – this stuff happens, and when it does we are quick to say, “look… God is watching the apples.”
Which is all well and good until things go horribly wrong. All well and good until the mass shooting happens in your community, it’s your test results that come back positive, or your car that breaks down in the rain at rush hour with no place to pull over. What’s going on then?
I don’t know. Nobody knows. But I have a really hard time believing that God would have, could have, should have helped, but unfortunately was just too busy watching the apples.
These moments are problematic. These are the moments when we wonder where God is all of a sudden. The moments when we ask the big questions that come in small packages. Big questions like, “Why?” “Where are you God?” “How could you let this happen?”
It is in these moments when we have as much of a right as Mary or Martha to say, “Lord if you had been here…” and are left wondering where the Lord has gotten off to.
Which brings us to our Bible story for today: the story of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. I have always struggled with this story, because Martha and Mary are absolutely right. If Jesus had been there, Lazarus would not have died.
But Jesus wasn’t there because according to the gospel letting Lazarus die was actually part of the plan. Jesus didn’t just stay where he was because he was really busy or afraid of what would happen to him if he returned to Judea.
Apparently Jesus planned to return all along. But he delayed his return because, to put it bluntly, you can’t resurrect a man who isn’t dead.
Jesus loves Mary. He loves Martha. And he loves their brother, Lazarus. The scripture makes this abundantly clear. But for God’s glory, for his own, and for the sake of his disciples, Jesus allows Lazarus to die so that he can return to Judea and perform one last, unbelievable, undeniable sign.
And forgive me for saying what I hope you are all thinking: but that just seems wrong…right?
Because if that is the case, then Jesus is using these poor people. If that is the case then Jesus is exploiting their suffering and grief in order to advance his own agenda. And that sort of thinking, for all its commonality, makes me very uncomfortable.
People often say that things, be they good or bad, happen for a reason, and this story would seem to support that philosophy. I mean from the beginning it is clear that Jesus has a plan. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are going to have to suffer as part of the plan, but they will suffer for good reason. In the end it will all be okay. Jesus’ end will justify his means, because the sisters will get their brother back and everyone will “see the glory of God.”
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the Jesus we meet at the beginning of this story is far enough removed from his friends in Judea that he is actually thinking this way. He knows what is going to happen and why, and he is resolved to bide his time and see things through. In fact, he is so calm about the whole thing he seems almost callous. I am not loving this Jesus.
And if he had remained calm throughout, I don’t know that I could even preach on this story. Thankfully, he doesn’t. Jesus’ calm resolve begins to crack as soon as he reaches Bethany.
Martha he can just about handle. She is the practical one after all, the problem solver, a woman of tremendous faith and courage. She runs out to meet him and says "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." Martha’s faith is resilient. Now that Jesus is here, she believes that everything will be alright.
She is calm enough that they can talk theology and so Jesus gives her a sense of what is in store: "I am the resurrection and the life.” He says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And she does. I think for Martha these words are a real comfort.
She is a future-oriented person. I don’t think she expected Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead that afternoon, but she did believe that in time, through the power Jesus proclaimed, her brother would be resurrected on the last day. For Martha, the promise of a better future was enough of a consolation. She was someone who could handle the trials of the present because she believed that ultimately things would turn out all right.
So Jesus can handle Martha. But after she leaves him and runs to tell her sister that the teacher has finally arrived, Jesus must contend with Mary, and she is not so easy. When Mary arrives there are no caveats, no hopeful qualifications, no words like “even now I know that you can help.”
When Mary arrives and throws herself at Jesus’ feet, there is no hope. There is only the rawness of her grief: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." That’s it. That is all. She doesn’t ask him to make it better… to account for where he has been. She doesn’t even ask him to explain why. All Mary knows is that she has lost her brother. She is consumed by her grief, and right there in front of Jesus she weeps bitterly for the one she has lost.
And here is where the story takes a turn. To his credit, Jesus doesn’t tell her it’s all going to be okay, even though he knows that it will be. He doesn’t soothe her with promises, or try to impress her with his miraculous abilities or fancy words.
Jesus is blessedly quiet. He recognizes the profound nature of Mary’s grief and he stops and weeps with her. He may have had his reasons for letting things play out this way, but he knows in that moment that all the reasoning in the world cannot heal her grieving heart, and so he stands there with her. Jesus grieves beside this woman he dearly loves and lets his tears mingle with hers.
For me, this is the redemptive part of the story. I am deeply moved by the fact that Jesus, even though he knows that he can and will raise Lazarus from the dead in the very near future, can still honestly cry with Mary in her present. He does not weep because he has lost hope. He weeps because she is in pain and he feels her pain as his own.
The resurrection of Lazarus is important, but I think this is the most important part of the story because it tells us something so precious about our Lord. It tells us that we serve a God who loves us enough to feel what we feel. We worship a God who does not just enter into our humanity in the form of Jesus, but enters into our grief and our brokenness and our suffering as intimately as Jesus did with Mary.
Jesus cried with her in the middle of a hot, dusty road, and he cries with us even now when we have reason to grieve. Yes, there will come a day when God will wipe every tear from our eyes once and for all, but this …this does not diminish God’s anguish when we come in our grief and hold our great big broken hearts up to God.
The resurrection of Lazarus may be a story about the power and majesty of God, the penultimate sign that points to Jesus as the resurrection and the life, and that is all well and good from a theological standpoint.
But as we continue our journey, not just toward Easter, but through the griefs and losses that punctuate our lives, it is important that we not get so wrapped up in the glorious triumph of the resurrection that we forget that Jesus is with us through it all. It is good to remember that the resurrection was possible precisely because we serve a God who is not afraid to suffer with us and suffer for us.
For all the hope and joy, there is still a price to be paid for the triumph of Easter, and it takes us right back to the beginning of this story. You cannot resurrect a man who isn’t dead. We serve a God who loved us enough to live amongst us, which means we serve a God who was willing to suffer and die as one of us.
And so perhaps there is a plan of some sort, a method that informs all this madness, a way in which some things do happen for a reason. Not everything. But maybe some things. Perhaps God is watching the apples and the cookies and yes, even us in all our curious particulars. I don’t know how it all works.
I don’t know if we will one day stand before God and see our whole life laid out before us and finally understand why things happened the way that they did. I don’t know if a day will come when all of our suffering will make sense. Some days I believe that it will all come out in the wash, and other days I can’t imagine that at all.
All I know is that the knowledge that our suffering has a purpose does nothing to diminish our pain, and that when we suffer, so does God. I know that God recognizes us in our grief, God recognizes our grief as real, and God loves us enough to grieve alongside us.
I know this because on a road outside the town of Bethany in Judea, Jesus stooped down beside Mary and he wept. He wept with her and he wept for her.
“Lord, if you had been here…” but he was… he was there beside her, with her in her tears, and perhaps, at least for now, that is all we really need to know. Amen